India has set an ambitious target of installing 175 gigawatts of clean energy by 2022, and in the two years since that 2014 announcement, all signs point to a country serious about reaching that goal.
Of the total 175 GW India aspires to achieve, the majority – 100 GW – would be solar energy. In comparison, the world’s total solar power capacity at the end of 2014 was 181 GW, with India contributing a mere 3 GW. But earlier this month, India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy announced that total grid-connected solar power capacity has surpassed 8 GW, and they’re driving hard to meet this year’s goal of 12 GW by March 2017.
The push for infrastructure that has yet to be widely adopted even in the U.S. may seem strange, but Michael Maulick, CEO of solar tech company SunLink, thinks it makes perfect sense. SunLink recently entered a joint venture with Indian engineering company Ganges Internationale.
“Providing access to energy and providing clean water are the two biggest things that the world could do for anyone to promote better health, better education, better opportunities,” Maulick said in an interview with Humanosphere. “Electricity and water allow populations to be able to read at night, to be able to get educated, … to have better health, because they’re not breathing in [fumes from]kerosene lamps.”
For India – where almost 250 million people don’t have access to electricity, yet it is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S. – the barriers of existing infrastructure and jobs are not as significant as in the U.S.
“Once you install solar, it keeps on providing electricity. You don’t have to add something to it to generate the electricity, so for a developing nation or anywhere, including developed nations, solar is a no-brainer,” Maulick said.
Solar isn’t the only renewable energy source India is pursuing. Another 60 GW of the targeted 175 GW would be wind capacity, and the remaining 15 GW would be smaller hydropower and biomass projects.
Some feel that the government’s focus on solar is hindering progress in other renewable sectors.
“In our opinion, the increased focus on solar power has had a negative impact on wind power as the latter struggles for funding and policy support,” wrote Indian bank ICICI Securities analysts Prakash Gaurav Goel and Apoorva Bahadur in an Aug. 8 report, according to Livemint.
But a spokesperson for India’s largest wind power company, Suzlon Energy, responded to Livemint, “Both sources are not in competition but are complementary to each other; the real competition to renewables is coal.”
Not to mention, India’s geography is simply a good fit for solar. Whereas only eight states in India are favorable for wind projects, all 29 are well-suited for solar.
“India is a fortunate country in that if you look at the radiance map of the world, the majority of the country enjoys a significant amount of sunshine. So the fact that it does have sun a majority of the time – it’s basically free energy once the infrastructure is in place,” Maulick said.
For skeptics, installing that infrastructure is a big hang up, but many, like Maulick, see it as an opportunity to both preserve existing jobs and create new ones.
Maulick’s company, SunLink, is producing trackers for solar panels – in essence, the sunflower’s stem that allows it to track the sun’s movement. SunLink actually produced two versions of trackers, one designed specifically for developing countries based on hydraulics similar to those on heavy machinery, like Caterpillar, with which these countries are familiar from building basic infrastructure. It takes advantage of the fact that people in India already know how to use and maintain this technology.
Additionally, “someone has to do the labor to install these systems and to maintain them, to clean the panels to make sure they’re operating positively continually,” said Maulick. “So it’s a tremendous generator of both new jobs and a transition of skills into a new industry of skills that already exist there from previous industries that may be declining.”
That’s not to say reaching India’s goal will be easy. “It would be a challenge for the United States to develop that much of anything in that short a period of time,” said Maulick.
Despite the recent 8 GW milestone being a huge encouragement, Clean Technica reports that production “still lags behind the required rate of capacity addition to meet this financial year’s target.”
Maulick says to reach the 2022 target, India must maintain not its rate of production but its rate of acceleration.
“You understand the difference, right? It’s not about continuing on the same growth path, it’s accelerating … but I think it’s do-able, I really do,” Maulick says. “As long as people step back and take the big picture approach that [Prime Minister] Modi is driving, and he continues to keep the focus on it, there’s no doubt that it’s possible.”
Maulick largely credits the prime minister’s vision of a solar- and renewables-powered India for driving the industry at the pace it’s growing.
“Because there’s such a big impetus to do solar in India, there are many people focused on that big opportunity. I would imagine that over the next few years you’re going to have companies continually leapfrogging each other in size and capabilities,” Maulick says.
Engineering companies aren’t the only ones motivated to accelerate the industry. “Green banks” are popping up as well to help finance clean energy projects, one of the biggest obstacles that detractors often mention.
These market factors are why Maulick thinks the lofty 2022 goal is within reach. “If we don’t achieve it, it’s not because it wasn’t possible. It’s because of people … that try to cast a negative light that they cause indecision and, therefore, slow acceleration.”
While several countries precede India in an aggressive shift to renewables (like Costa Rica, which just celebrated 113 days of 100 percent clean energy), Maulick encourages everyone to follow suit.
“Every country in the world should be driving like Mr. Modi is towards renewables. There’s no reason that everyone shouldn’t. Its cost is less than any other form of generation, and it’s more productive for society because it’s healthier and cleaner,” he says.
Besides the moral and environmental benefits, at the end of the day Maulick says solar is just good business.
“I liken it to a money tree. Once you plant it, it keeps on growing, producing new leaves or new pieces of money,” he says. “That’s the kind of tree I’d like to have in my back yard.”