Geographies in Depth

India can lead the world in solar-based growth. Here's how

The sun is rising on India's future as a renewables powerhouse

The sun is rising on India's future as a renewables powerhouse Image: Rampal Singh / Unsplash

Osvald Bjelland
Founder and President, Xynteo
Sanjiv Mehta
Chairman and Managing Director, Hindustan; President, South Asia, Unilever
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  • As India's economy and population continue to grow, so too does its demand for energy.
  • India is also particularly vulnerable to climate change.
  • Solar power could be the answer to both problems. With 300 sunny days a year, India can lead the world in solar capacity.
  • Doing so will require strong policy-making and foreign investment – but the rewards will be manifold.

A quarter-century of growth has transformed the lives of millions of Indians and enabled the country to ascend to its rightful place on the global stage. India, now the sixth-largest economy, is projected to climb to third place by the end of the decade.

This rapid growth trajectory also positions India as a testbed of one of the most critical questions facing the environmental movement: can developing nations, which are expected to generate the bulk of global growth in the coming decade, reduce their carbon footprint while fulfilling their economic potential?

India is currently among the top-three nations in energy use, though way down the list on a per-capita basis. Its energy demand will grow the most on the planet over the next 20 years. Interestingly, it is not just economic growth driving this demand. India's population is anticipated to grow by 270 million over the next two decades — resulting in an increased demand for carbon-intensive industries like cement and steel to house the population.

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India is also very vulnerable to climate change, notably due to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and changes in the monsoon pattern. For a country aiming to become a $5 trillion economy, the move towards a low-carbon and regenerative economy is an imperative.

Solar salvation

In 2019, India ranked fourth globally in installed renewable power capacity, with solar and wind power leading the way. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a goal to generate 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 – five times the current capacity. If achieved, it also means that India would generate 60% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, well beyond the 40% target in its Paris pledge.

Solar could be India’s salvation. With around 300 sunny days a year, India has the potential to lead the world in solar electricity, which will be less expensive than existing coal-fired power by 2030, even when paired with battery storage.

This will require the development of utility-scale renewable energy projects with innovative regulatory approaches that encourage pairing solar with other renewable technologies and storage to offer ‘round the clock’ supply. It will also require attracting foreign investment in renewables.

Prime Minister Modi’s call for “high speed, large scale, concrete action” to combat climate change at the recent US-hosted summit and his open invitation to global partners for building sustainable solutions reaffirm India’s interest in nurturing cross-border collaboration and innovation to accelerate climate action.

Changes in share of power generation in India in the Stated Policies Scenario, 2010-2040
Changes in share of power generation in India in the Stated Policies Scenario, 2010-2040 Image: IEA

Up to the challenge

The choices made now and in the coming years by the Indian government and the people will affect the entire world. But the sustainable route won’t be easy or economical. The IEA report says transforming from today’s policy choices to a sustainable-development scenario would require a transition on a scale no country has achieved in history. It would also require considerable innovation, strong partnerships, and vast amounts of capital.

India should be up to the challenge. The nation’s fuel import bills are likely to triple in the next two decades under current policies. At the same time, India is seen as an emerging renewables and storage powerhouse and is one of the few countries on track to meet most of its Paris targets. If the country follows a more sustainable path of reducing emissions and increasing its share in non-fossil based fuel for electricity generation, then its bills for importing energy can be reduced substantially, offsetting the investments in renewables.

Of the world's 2,000 largest public companies, at least one-fifth (21%) now have net-zero commitments, representing annual sales of nearly $14 trillion. Even in India, companies have stepped up their climate initiatives. According to the Standard Chartered SDG Investment Map, India alone offers a private investment opportunity of over $700 billion in clean energy. The private sector has a significant role in transforming the core of its business and delivery models and in building collaborative partnerships that will support them in achieving sustainability goals and ensuring inclusive growth for all.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we are in a period of transformation. It takes bold and decisive leadership to unlock potential, widen the perspective, tune in to broader systemic needs, and ultimately build partnerships that help deliver for the greater good.

India is blessed with an extraordinary reservoir of business and public leadership talent committed to a cleaner and brighter future. The 2030 milestone is a crucial target for private sector investors looking to invest for impact and improve the lives of millions of Indians in the coming decade.

India has shown the world how to lift millions of people out of poverty and provide a better quality of life. With its transition to clean energy, India can become the model for nations around the globe by creating a pathway to sustainable growth, rising prosperity, environmental justice and a clean energy future.

This article is published in collaboration with Hindustan Times. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthEnergy TransitionClimate Action
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