India’s hard push on renewables isn’t about climate change—yet

Sweety Devangan, a 42-year-old tailor, checks her phone during a power outage near a coal power plant in Korba, Chhattisgarh.
Sweety Devangan, a 42-year-old tailor, checks her phone during a power outage near a coal power plant in Korba, Chhattisgarh.
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After spending 25 years working in the financial markets, Tim Buckley has dedicated himself to understanding and accelerating the transition to clean energy.

Image for article titled India’s hard push on renewables isn’t about climate change—yet
Image: Tim Buckley

Now, he works for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a think tank funded by non-profits like the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Hewlett Foundation. He heads the Australasia bureau, focusing on the electricity sector in China and India, where he frequently meets with top decision-makers in industry and government.

On a smoggy afternoon in Delhi, Buckley spoke to Quartz about his views on how India is meeting the challenge of providing increasing amounts of energy to its people while trying to lower its dependence on fossil fuels.

We’re seeing India’s coal players, from state-owned miner Coal India Limited to coal power behemoth NTPC, getting into renewables. Is that happening anywhere else in the world?

No, it’s not really happening anywhere else yet. It’s really unusual, and I think it’s an indication of the future of coal in India.

I was looking at China’s Shenhua, which used to be the biggest coal miner in the world. Coal India is now bigger than them. But about five or seven years ago, Shenhua pivoted. They said coal is dead, not on a five-year view, but on a 30-year view. Now, 20% of Shenhua’s revenue comes from renewables. But they’re fighting it. They bought all of it; they didn’t build any of it. And they have not accepted the technology.

Whereas Indian companies are embracing renewables?

I was on a panel about coal in India at the start of this year; it was a debate with Tata Power [India’s oldest private electricity generator]. I was meant to be the renewables guy; the Tata Power guy was meant to be promoting coal. We had some 200 coal executives and not a single renewables person in the room. The opening sentence from Tata Power was: We will never build another coal-fired power plant again.

Which is true, along with an overall shift toward renewables. But Tata Power has also said they will buy financially stressed coal power plants, of which India has quite a few. How does that fit into their strategy?

Right. We were meant to be having a three-hour debate, and in one minute he killed it. So I turned to him and said, “You might not be building coal plants but you will buy them.” He said, “Yes, but we will not pay more than 30 cents on the dollar [of the existing price], because it’s not worth more than that.”

That’s because India currently has too many coal power plants. So what can it really do with them, if Tata thinks they’re worth so little?

The Indian government is talking about coal balancing renewables. They are acknowledging renewables are cheap, but there needs to be a way to balance intermittency. So they want faster ramping coal.

In Australia, the Liddell power plant is doing faster ramping coal. It involves four people sitting in the control room. They’re watching the 5-minute interval pricing [of electricity] and they’re saying to the grid operator: We’ll ramp 5 MW per turbine per minute. In the next 15 minutes we will ramp from 40% to 70% utilization [of the power plant’s total generation capacity]. I promote that idea in our research as one of six or ten tools to help decarbonize. 

So that’s part of a short-term plan. Long-term, why is India pushing so hard on renewables? Is it because of climate change?

Number one, the renewables goals are about energy security. India imports 80% of the oil it consumes, 50% of gas, 20% of coal. The fossil fuel hit that India’s economy carries shows up in the current account deficit and the weakening of the currency. The currency then feeds into the inflation rate. The inflation rate feeds interest rates. So if India doesn’t deal with that, it’s just going to choke the Indian economic growth story. 

Number two is economics. Renewables are the lowest cost source of supply. Energy security is also benefited by diversity. You’ve got a coal-heavy system. You want to diversify. You can’t diversify into gas. Hard to build too much nuclear or hydro, because it takes so long and it requires a lot of subsidies. 

Number three. At some point—I thought it would be by now—air pollution will be and it has to be a factor. The fact that India’s capital cities are the worst affected. That’s what drove Beijing: It was killing their own kids. The ruling classes are not immune to it. 

Number four is water stress. Water availability is going down incrementally. If you build 30% more coal, you’re going to require 30% more water. India doesn’t have 30% more water. 

Number five is that [prime minister Narendra] Modi wants India to be on the world stage. It’s a position that India’s not had before. 

China’s electrification of buses has lowered their oil consumption by 300,000 barrels a day, which is saving them $5 billion in oil imports each year.

That’s the way to answer the question. Electrification is as much about energy security as it is about clean air. It’s not always about climate. There’s a climate benefit, but it’s not the driver. The 5 billion bucks are the driver.

Regardless of the motivation, what does India’s approach to its coal problem mean for the developing world?

India’s really important. Some say if it shifts on coal, other countries will shift. In one way, India is already becoming the model. It can be a great role model, potentially, if it stays on target and if it delivers on emissions goals. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.