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A 100% renewable India: can it be done?

Research carried out at the University of Technology (LUT) in Finland has found that India will have the capacity to operate on a fully renewable electricity system by 2050.

It`s a big claim for a nation of more than a billion people, many of whom still live without electricity at all. So what would it take?

India has the capacity to operate entirely on renewables by 2050, is the bold claim of a study produced by the University of Technology (LUT) in Finland.

Titled The Demand for Storage Technologies in Energy Transition Pathways Towards 100% Renewable Energy for India, it details how increasing solar, wind and storage capacities would allow India to transition from its fossil fuel-heavy energy mix to a clean and sustainable alternative.

The work arose from the combined efforts of the Finnish Solar Revolution research project and the Neo-Carbon Energy research project. In the Finnish Solar Revolution, “LUT is specifically researching new and emerging markets for solar power development in the context of the global energy transition and the socioeconomic impacts of solar power”, says LUT doctoral researcher and co-author of the study Ashish Gulagi.

"The Neo-Carbon Energy project has developed a new energy system based on solar and wind alongside other renewables such as hydropower, geothermal and sustainable biomass,” says Gulagi. “The system will produce energy that is emission-free, cost-effective and independent. To limit the global warming to 2°C, the transition towards renewables has to begin now. We have studied all the regions in the world, transitioning towards 100% renewable energy.”

In India, the proposed system would not only provide energy, but power seawater desalination and generate synthetic natural gas. The transition would require €3,380bn worth of investment, but ultimately, power would cost €11 less per MWh, compared with current prices of INR3,220 (€46) per MWh.

An estimated 15%-20% of power would be produced by energy prosumers, mainly citizens, using roof-mounted PV. “Given India’s burgeoning electricity demand and the persistent supply demand gap along with the summer shortages and outages, solar PV prosumers will have a crucial role in enabling the country’s transition to a fully sustainable energy system,” emphasises LUT’s professor Christian Breyer.

Working towards 100% renewable

The shift to renewable power generation is already underway, with 50,745MW of India’s 315,369.08MW of installed generation capacity comprised of renewables. This is continuing to expand and currently looks set to surpass its original goal of 175GW by 2022.

"In the last couple of years, the government has woken up to the fact of climate change and its devastating effects on India,” says Gulagi. “India pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 33%-35% by 2030 in comparison to 2005. It has also pledged that 40% of the country’s electricity would be generated from non-fossil fuels, such as wind and solar.”

Capacity auctions over the next four years amount to more than 81GW of solar, and India has 15.6GW already installed. Currently, wind provides more than double that of solar although installation is slowing. Wind accounts for 32.7GW of India`s generation, with a further 29GW planned before 2022.

"India has been and will continue to be a major economy in the world,” says Gulagi. “The steps India takes to limit global warming will be keenly observed by the entire world. To succeed in limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C, India has to play a major role in achieving a global energy transition. India will be a key country in global energy studies and research.”

However, 50 million rural households still lack access to electricity in India. Throughout his election campaign in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to increase electrification. Progress has been made, but as many as 240 million Indians still lack power. Balancing electrification with growth in the renewables sector represents a challenge, but possibly an opportunity. Many projects currently skip fossil fuels, for example using solar microgrids to electrify villages. As such, retrofitting is unnecessary.

India also has the fastest growing population in the world, increasing by 15 million people a year, and the demand for energy is rising in correlation, a fact LUT has taken into account within its study. In 2015, power demand was at 720 million MWh, LUT estimates it to be about 6,200 million MWh in 2050.

Overcoming coal’s dominance

For India to become fully reliant on renewable energy, it will have to dramatically increase its solar and storage capacities according to LUT. “A first of its kind model with hourly resolution was utilised to determine the energy mix of the country based on the least cost principle,” explains Gulagi.

“The LUT Energy System Transition model was used for the transition research of the Indian power system. This model optimises linearly the energy system parameters under previously defined constraints and the assumption for future renewable energy (RE) power generation and demand in the particular region.”

Coal still accounts for nearly 60% of India’s energy mix, and while the share of renewables is expanding fast, there are a number of challenges, such as availability of land and the lack of a reliable and comprehensive transmission grid which will need to be overcome to reach 100% a renewable mix.

The potential profitability of renewable projects has also become better understood. “In the past in India, there was a big problem of getting capital from banks for renewable energy projects,” says Gulagi. “They had high cost of capital. However, this has been changing rapidly as the banks are able to understand the renewable energy sector. Nowadays it is getting harder for coal power plants to get capital from the financial institutions.” 

A large amount of energy storage will also be required in order for the system to provide reliable, constant power. “From our research we have identified that battery storage would be required when the share of RE in the system exceeds more than 50%,” says Gulagi. “In the future, faster adoption of storage technologies will be required. But this is not a problem as the cost decline of batteries is as same as solar energy.”

Battery technology has got consistently cheaper over the last twenty years, and according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance survey, the price will drop to just $100/kWh by 2025. With the success of projects such as Tesla’s 100MW battery in Australia, their adoption is likely to increase worldwide bringing the cost down still further. As such, storage is unlikely to be the challenge it may first appear.

“The biggest problem in achieving a high level of RE in the system is the political will to make people understand that such a system is possible in reality,” says Gulagi. “People still think that a baseload power plant is needed, for example India’s baseload power comes from coal. However, such a concept is old, and was made up by the coal and oil industry.”

India first, then the world

There are significant challenges for India to overcome when transitioning to an entirely renewable energy system, but it would be beneficial for India for a number of reasons. Not only would it dramatically cut the emissions of this, the third-biggest polluter in the world, but also create a huge number of jobs and improve health.

“The quality of air and air pollution has been India’s biggest problem for many years. According to WHO [the World Health Organisation], there are seven Indian cities in the top ten most polluted cities in the world,” says Gulagi. “In 2015, 1.1 million people died due to air pollution and this has been more than China. So, India has surpassed China in the number of people dying due to air pollution. And the government is in constant denial that premature deaths are caused by air pollution.”

India’s climate and landscape provide advantages for the uptake of renewables, getting as many as 300 days of sunshine a year to boost solar production. “India has one of the best solar potentials in the world, this resource is well distributed all over its area and with prices declining so fast every year, there is no reason why India cannot achieve its climate change targets and also achieve a fully sustainable energy system until the middle of this century,” says Gulagi.

Beyond India, Gulagi and his team are confident that this model can be rolled out broadly. “If India can do it, all the countries should be able to follow the path set by India,” says Gulagi.

Molly Lempriere is a features writer and energy analyst.

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