Renewables Shine through India’s Blackout to a Clean Energy Future

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India’s recent blackouts are a case study for what happens when power demand outstrips the capacity of an aging grid fed by centralized fossil fuel power plants without smart grid technology – rolling blackouts become a way of life. But they may also be just the opportunity renewable energy needed to power India’s future.

There are lessons to learn from India’s troubles, especially as climate change drives electrical demand up while changing traditional water access and weather patterns. India relies heavily on coal and hydropower to meet its electricity needs. But when rising coal prices and an exceptionally dry monsoon season limited the ability of power producers to ramp up supply, the grid couldn’t keep up.

And the problem is only going to get worse.  An estimated 40 percent of India’s population isn’t connected to the grid, the country’s economy is growing between 8-10 percent per year, and it expects to add 88 gigawatts (GW) of new generation capacity by 2017. All that demand must be met one way or another, and for many Indian policymakers, that means more coal plants.

But what if instead of dirty coal, India’s yawning energy gap was filled with distributed renewables and microgrids? It’s not only possible, but is already happening.

Wind and solar keep the lights on

Wind energy was credited with ending the blackout in Western India’s Jodhpur state almost immediately, according to local reports. “The power generated through wind energy put an end to the outage within two hours, providing us with around 800-900 MW power,” one local energy official said. “We immediately switched to wind power and resumed power supply at hospitals, water pumps, railways, high court and administrative offices.”

An innovative off-grid solar project also managed to keep the lights on during the blackout. Meerwada, a remote central Indian village, had no access to electricity until SunEdison built a 14-kilowatt solar plant in the community for the same monthly price per resident for power from kerosene.

India’s power woes could make it possible

While these two examples are vastly different in scale, they illustrate how renewables could become a much larger part of India’s energy future. With so many remote communities, building new distributed generation makes more sense financially than building new centralized power plants and transmission lines.

Indian citizens have become accustomed to dealing with frequent blackouts through the use of microgrids and backup generators, and the jump to a system of community-based grids centered around renewables with backup generators already in place would likely work within the population’s existing energy mindset.

Shifting to a distributed generation system would also help the country’s wind energy industry, which has seen new capacity additions cut in half, due largely to difficulties interconnecting to the national grid and receiving revenue from state-owned utilities.

Massive potential for renewables

In this context, it’s reasonable to think that India could make a massive jump toward renewables, especially solar. A recent report predicted solar power will reach grid parity in India by 2017, and the off-grid solar market has been forecast to install more than 1 GW per year by 2017 at the same price of diesel power. India already has a goal of 20GW solar capacity by 2022, and one firm contracted to build solar in the country thinks it’ll actually install 40 GW within a decade.

But even these projections may not estimate the country’s true capacity for new renewables. Former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, speaking days after the blackout, said half the country’s 2030 energy requirement of 400GW could be met by renewables. “Ideally, 215,000MW can be generated from renewable energy resources… 50,000MW of hydro power by creating regional waterways… 60,000MW solar energy from large-scale solar power plants… 50,000MW from nuclear power… and 65,000MW using wind energy.”

India wind farm image via Shutterstock

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2 thoughts on “Renewables Shine through India’s Blackout to a Clean Energy Future

  • 50GW nuclear power in 2030, as part of their “renewables” energy. But at least it was only 1/4 of the “renewables” energy

    • Those reactors are not yet built.

      We may well see some big breakthroughs in utility scale battery storage in the next couple of years. (I’m thinking Aquion and the MIT liquid metal battery.)

      If that happens and solar continues to fall it’s going to make no financial sense to build nuclear in India. They can harvest all the sunlight they have in great amounts and put their existing coal/diesel generation into deep backup mode.

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