How India could pull off the world’s most ambitious energy transition | Varun Sivaram

Transcriber: TED Translators Admin
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs The air smelled smoky and sulfurous. I just stepped off
a rickety train to Korba, deep in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, and home to a dozen coal power plants and India's largest open-pit coal mine. There it is, a literal hellscape, complete with infernal
fires that burn 24/7. But, in Korba, coal is life. Most people I talked to accepted that the coal economy
powers their livelihoods, but it is slowly killing them. Here's a community
next door to a coal plant. They wake every morning
to homes coated in a fresh layer of ash from the smoke that the plant belches.

Korba is one of the most critically
polluted places on the planet. And it's not just
coal country that's hurting, all of India has a deadly
addiction to fossil fuels. India's home to 22 of the world's
30 most polluted places on the planet. In Delhi, the capital, residents lose 9.4 years
off their life expectancy on average. In 2020, the skies briefly cleared
during the coronavirus lockdown, as cars stayed off the roads,
factories shuttered and power plants ramped down. But the economic dislocation has put 400 million Indians
at risk of falling deeper into poverty. India should not have to sacrifice
development for breathable air. There is a better way. For India has a historic opportunity
to industrialize using clean energy. That opportunity is why I moved
halfway around the world from the US to India to join ReNew Power, India's largest renewable
energy company, as CTO. After two years
of crisscrossing the country, I've seen green shoots everywhere, of a budding clean energy boom, daring me to hope that India can pull off the world's
most important energy transition. Its choices will make or break
the world's fight against climate change, for if India chooses fossil fuels
to power its growing economy, its carbon emissions could explode, making it the world's number one
emitter later this century.

Still, for most Indians
fossil fuels are a luxury. Most live in rural areas, and wood, cow dung and bioenergy sources account for two-thirds
of household energy use. Just six percent of Indians own cars, and two percent have air conditioning. Indians will need far more energy to escape poverty and live
modern, dignified lifestyles. By 2050 most will live in cities, and they'll want to drive
to work and cool their homes. Along the way, India will become
the world's most populous country, home to 1.6 billion people by mid-century. Its economy could multiply tenfold; its energy needs could quadruple. Today, coal, oil and gas
supply three-quarters of India's energy, producing electricity, fueling vehicles
and powering India's factories. If, by 2050, India still gets
the same proportion from fossil fuels, it'll be a disaster for everyone, not least local populations, vulnerable to pollution, climate change
or rapacious new coal mining. Instead, India can make renewable energy
the beating heart of a reimagined economy by achieving three audacious goals
all at the same time.

It's a route no country
in history has ever taken, but it is possible, and this moment demands it. First, India will need to
build solar and wind power at an unprecedented scale and speed, replacing coal-fired power plants. Second, India will need to extend
the reach of that renewable energy to power sectors of the economy
like industry and transportation that haven't traditionally
used electricity. And third, India must become
radically more energy-efficient. Here's my plan to achieve all three goals. First, India must build thousands
of gigawatts of solar and wind power. To put this in context, it will be more than enough
renewable energy to power all of America. Fortunately, India is blessed
with abundant sunshine. In theory, you could supply
all of its energy needs by tapping the sunlight that shines on less than 10 percent
of India's wastelands. India also has substantial
untapped wind potential on land and offshore.

Wind and solar complement each other because the wind often blows harder
when it's less sunny, like during the monsoon rains. Here's some even more exciting news: Wind and solar power
are now cheaper than coal power, and it costs less
to build a solar farm in India than anywhere else in the world. Batteries have also
become dramatically cheaper, making it possible to store
and deliver energy on demand. Thanks to falling costs,
renewable energy has risen rapidly, but it will need to grow
even more explosively through mid-century. This is the critical decade
to invest in solar and wind power and avoid locking in
new, long-lived coal power plants. India must also urgently expand its grid to deliver power for massive
solar and wind plants in the sun-soaked deserts of Rajasthan
or the windy coast of Gujarat, to energy-hungry cities like Mumbai. Not all renewables
should be built at massive scale. Distributed solar, on the rooftops of warehouses
or the outskirts of sprawling cities, can produce power
close to where it's needed.

Now, to be sure, nuclear and hydropower will be essential to energy
transitions around the world. But India simply lacks
the state capacity needed to build complex pricey projects
at a breakneck pace, and all that push to build
renewable wind and solar power best plays to India's strengths. The second audacious goal is to use renewable energy
across the economy, including in sectors
like industry and transportation that don't use electricity today. As rising renewable energy
makes the power grid cleaner, India should make
all of its trains run on electricity and move more heavy freight
from heavy trucks to rail. India's road vehicle fleet
can also go electric. Now, to be clear, we're mostly not talking
about these electric vehicles, but these. Two- and three-wheelers make up more than 80 percent
of India's vehicle fleet. To accelerate the adoption
of electric scooters and rickshaws, India should build out charging stations and beef up local power grids to handle the influx
of electricity demand. Still, electrification
won't work everywhere. It may not be possible to use electricity
to power some heavy industrial processes in the fast-growing steel, cement,
fertilizer and petrochemical sectors.

Plants may need to add equipment to capture carbon emissions
from burning fossil fuels. Another solution could be clean hydrogen. Surplus renewable electricity
can run machines called electrolyzers that can split water into oxygen
and green hydrogen fuel. That hydrogen can then power applications
in transportation and industry, such as making steel or chemicals. Hydrogen can also act
as a sort of battery, storing surplus wind
and solar power to be used later. Finally, the third goal
is to radically improve energy efficiency. If there's any country in the world
where efficiency is all-important, it's India. Even if India builds a massive
supply of renewable energy and extends the reach of that energy
by stitching together its economy, it won't be enough
without energy efficiency. Because if India's voracious demand
for energy rises too quickly, it'll have to fill the gap
with polluting fossil fuels. Here's a crazy statistic: Just to power the insane
demand for air conditioning, India will need to add
70 percent of the power system capacity of all of Europe today.

And because much of India
is hot and humid, air conditioning demand
will peak during sweaty nights, making it tough for solar to power ACs. But far more efficient air conditioners
could make it possible to power the aspirations
of a rising middle class with renewable energy. India's big advantage
is that it's largely a clean slate. An incredible 70 percent
of India's infrastructure in 2030 hasn't been built yet.

That presents a huge opportunity
to enact stringent efficiency standards and design energy-efficient
buildings and cities. Still, there are warning signs that India's energy transition
could sputter out. COVID-19 sharply slowed the building of new
renewable energy plants. Even larger challenges loom. First, India's electricity
distribution utilities are mismanaged, economically fragile and forced by many states to subsidize power to farmers
and residential customers.

India needs reforms to more efficiently combat energy poverty while overhauling unprofitable utilities
so they can pay for clean energy on time. Doing so will make it possible to raise trillions of dollars
at home and abroad to finance India's
clean energy transition. Second, that transition will stall
without new and improved technologies. Here's an economic opportunity for India to cultivate
advanced clean energy industries. In the future, India
should manufacture and export energy-efficient air conditioners, electric two- and three-wheelers and equipment to produce and use hydrogen. India's already strong
in wind power manufacturing, and it could become a global leader
in digital energy technologies. The international community can help here by funding innovation to make
India's energy transition faster and more affordable. Countries like the United States should help fund public procurement
of advanced air conditioners and partner to build projects
on the ground in India that demonstrate critical technologies, such as long-duration energy storage
and carbon capture.

Finally, coal isn't going away
without a fight. It's big business in India. Near Korba, India's coal capital, private companies are pushing ahead
to expand coal mining, even deforesting an elephant preserve
to dig out the coal underneath. I witnessed the destruction firsthand. But for every Korba there is a Kutch. In this wind-swept
region of Gujarat, I gaped as construction crews
hoisted 70-ton nacelles atop towers taller
than a football field is long. The wind turbine blades
are manufactured in India, and the electricity
they'll go on to generate will help power economic growth. Renewable energy offers India
a cleaner and more prosperous future than coal ever can. Unless we hasten the transition, air pollution and climate change
will continue to ravage the country and endanger the planet. So, let's get to work. Thank you..

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