The Race to Zero Emissions: the bumbling rise of renewables in India

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This week we’re publishing a field guide on the future of coal in India. So briefly, the newsletter will revert back to its original form: giving you a deeper perspective on an issue of global importance that I’ve spent the past few months working on. 

Earlier this year, I helped my parents get rooftop solar for our home in India. The total cost of the system was about $5,000 for a 5 kW system, which included solar panels and an inverter, the structure on the roof that held the panels facing southwards, and the fees for a developer to bring all the pieces together.

The reason to get the system wasn’t simply because my parents (and their kids) are climate conscious. It made economic sense. Maharashtra state, where our home is located, offers a net-metering scheme, which means any excess solar-power generation in the day offsets electricity use after sunset. The investment could be recouped in less than 10 years—for a system that should last 20 years or more.

The case for solar power is even stronger for those in the commercial sector, where the the cost of electricity is often double that charged to residential customers. On my annual trips back home, I’ve been witness to the rapid proliferation of rooftop solar in my hometown of nearly 2 million.

That, however, doesn’t mean it’s been straightforward. My dad and I began talking to developers in mid-January. The solar panels were secured and installed by the end of March. Then we had to wait for two months, even as the panels baked under the peak summer sun, to acquire the necessary permissions from the state-owned utility. The system went live in June.

The delay in the getting the system running wasn’t simply about ineffective bureaucracy. State-owned utilities end up losing significant revenue from paying customers when they get rooftop solar. As I explained yesterday, these utilities are deep in the red and try to delay the permitting process as much as they can.

Earlier this month, the electricity meter the utility installed broke down. The company hasn’t been able to send somebody to fix the meter for more than two weeks now. That meant, even as the sun has returned after the monsoon rains, my parents’ rooftop solar system is not allowed to generate electricity.

Unlike the rest of the anglophilic world—Canada, the US, Australia, and the UK—India has never encountered a significant culture of climate-change denial. But the awareness of climate change in India hasn’t been high either. So the rise of renewables in India, including solar, has other motivations: from energy security to soft power, says Tim Buckley who heads the Australasia bureau of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis think tank. (Read more in our field guide’s Q&A published today.)

All that tremendous growth in solar power and wind power has come in the face of India’s bumbling bureaucracy. Even as the national government has created friendly policies for renewables, state governments have made it harder to execute on them. The energy transition isn’t going to be smooth or easy.

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