The possibilities and limits of solar energy
By concentrating so much on solar and wind energy, there is a risk of the government falling into the trap of thinking that we can rely on these alone to control the climate crisis. We can’t
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi recently told a conference of global renewable energy investors hosted by India that the country’s renewable energy capacity would reach 220 gigawatts (GW) within two years. He said he planned to reach 450GW by 2030. The largest supply of renewable energy is to be provided by the sun, with wind coming a poor second.
India has plenty of sun and these targets, although ambitious, are achievable. The initial target by the government of 20GW by 2022 was achieved four years ahead of schedule. But there are problems which India still has to overcome. There are also traps India might fall into if it concentrates so hard on solar and wind energy that it ignores all the other measures that need to be taken to curb the climate crisis.
Land is a major problem the solar industry is facing. In Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, there are protests over the acquisition of land where solar parks are either under construction or planned. In Rajasthan, Adani Green, reported to be the largest solar power generator in the world, had to stop work on the Fatehgarh Mega Solar Park spread over 989 hectares because of a court stay order. Two sets of villagers had filed petitions saying they were dependent on the land. The local authorities have claimed the land is owned by the government and the villagers are encroachers because they have no papers.
The American bank, Goldman Sachs, is as optimistic about renewable energy as the Indian PM. The bank maintains that in 2021 investment in renewable energy will, for the first time, surpass spending on traditional fuel sources like oil and gas. Explaining its optimism, Goldman Sachs says, “Green technologies are now mature enough to be deployed at scale.” But it also says that “an attractive regulatory framework is needed”. What is an attractive framework for the solar industry is not necessarily going to be acceptable to India’s environmental movement.
Solar energy development also raises environmental issues. For instance, the disposal of material hazardous to the environment. Unless the government insists on green energy generators disposing of photovoltaic cells safely, India could accumulate 1.88 million tonnes of hazardous waste, according to the engineering consultants, Bridge to India.
The lack of solar cells and modules manufacturing capacity is another problem. Although India has had a ministry for promoting unconventional energy for almost 30 years, it still imports 90% of its solar cells and modules. The excuse for this has been competition from cheap Chinese imports. Gautam Adani, chairman of the Adani group, said the investment he intends to make in manufacturing cells and modules will develop ecosystems in the solar industry in the way Maruti had developed them in the small car manufacturing industry.
By concentrating so much on solar and wind energy, there is a risk of the government falling into the trap of thinking that we can rely on these alone to control the climate crisis. We can’t. We still need to reduce the demand for energy and increase the efficiency of the way we use it. Funding for research into other growing alternative energy technologies such as clean hydrogen should continue. The search for satisfactory carbon marketing also needs to go on. Then there must be far more effective measures to preserve forests and protect rivers.
Just before I wrote this column, the United Nations secretary-general made an impassioned speech on climate crisis warning, “Our planet is broken. Humans are waging suicidal war on nature. Nature always strikes back and it’s doing so with gathering force and fury.” Despite its ancient tradition of living harmoniously with nature, India too is now at war with nature. It must do much more to make peace with it.