Modi should make India’s energy transition his third-term legacy

India conducted the largest democratic election in world history while suffering from an intense and prolonged heat wave that has brought a significant part of the country to a standstill. On May 29, New Delhi registered an all-time high temperature of 127 degrees Fahrenheit. Public schools and government offices have been forced to close, and Indians have stayed home to avoid the deadly impact of the heat. The extreme heat likely depressed voter turnout in the elections that ended on June 1.

A recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change shows that Indians are highly aware of climate change and its impact on India’s future: A staggering 86 percent “favor the Indian government’s commitment to reduce India’s carbon pollution to nearly zero by 2070.” According to the survey, 85 percent agree that “transitioning from coal to wind and solar energy to produce electricity will reduce air pollution,” and 82 percent say “doing so would reduce global warming.” Surprisingly, the survey revealed that 84 percent “favor banning the construction of new coal power plants, closing existing ones, and replacing them with solar and wind energy.”

At the same time, Indians are concerned about the unintended consequences of climate change policies. The Yale survey showed that 61 percent say transitioning from coal to wind and solar energy to produce electricity “will increase unemployment in India,” 58 percent say “it will cause electricity outages,” and 57 percent say “it will increase electricity prices.” 

Indians are aware that they are among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2). India’s CO2 emissions are relatively low per capita, ranking just sixteenth in Asia and ninety-ninth globally. But India’s burgeoning population, need for economic and job growth, and role in the global digital and technology ecosystem mean that India will need multiple power sources, including coal and other fossil fuels, for the near future. In fact, the International Energy Agency’s 2021 India Energy Outlook notes that the country needs to add a power system the size of the entire European Union grid to meet its energy requirements over the next twenty years. A blend of energy sources that moves swiftly toward green energy is the only viable option.

Indian leaders have committed to lowering their country’s dependence on coal and other fossil fuels, reduce its carbon intensity by 45 percent, and achieve 50 percent cumulative electric power from renewables by 2030. Equally ambitious, India would like to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. A 2023 report by the International Energy Agency stated that India is expected to produce over half of the world’s new capacity for renewable energy over the next three years. Much of this should be credited to India’s aggressive renewable energy policies.

Three opportunities for Modi to boost clean energy

But with Prime Minister Narendra Modi winning a historic third consecutive term, leading a coalition government, he has the mandate to go beyond issuing regulations and providing government financing. There are three opportunities that the Modi government could take right away to further support and strengthen its clean energy agenda.

First, businesses require certainty. Indian laws and regulations are not required to have sunset provisions and can be revoked or terminated at any time. This discourages large-scale private sector commitments and investments. Defined regulatory and legislative terms articulate the government’s commitment to its policies and allow businesses to accurately assess its financial commitments. Similar to the United States’ 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, the Modi government could commit to a ten-year sunset for its clean energy programs. After ten years, when the regulations need to be reauthorized, the laws can be updated to meet current demands.

Second, to help support clean energy businesses, the government needs to expand its institutional capacity at the state level and properly invest in education systems to produce a skilled workforce.

Third, with the increase in power generation, India must ensure that its electrical grids can receive and transmit the power to customers (the last mile). Failure to do so could cause India to miss its clean energy targets and lead to a slowdown in economic and job growth.

Over the past three decades, more than 3,500 climate policies have been announced by nations around the world, according to the World Economic Forum. From 2010 to 2015, China issued the highest number of climate policies. But from 2015 to 2022, India took the lead by issuing more than fifty climate change policies. These ranged from production-linked incentive schemes to policies that encourage the use of clean energy products such as rooftop solar energy. This multifaceted approach is backed with the objective of reducing India’s carbon intensity by 45 percent compared with 2005 levels and generating 50 percent of electric power from renewable sources by 2030.

What the private sector is already doing

The private sector has positively responded to India’s ambitious goals. For example, in 2022 the Adani Group* started developing the world’s largest renewable energy park. Through an ecosystem of manufacturing, generation, and transmission, the Khavda renewable energy park, located in the deserts of Gujarat, is combining wind and solar power to generate 30 gigawatts of energy for the national grid. When completed in 2029, the park will power 16.1 million homes and eliminate 58 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, the developers say. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of planting more than two billion trees or not burning 60,300 tons of coal each year. Another massive Indian conglomerate, Tata Group, recently completed India’s largest solar and battery energy storage system via its Tata Power Solar Systems subsidiary. Tata says that the facility, which is in Chhattisgarh, combines a 100 megawatt solar photovoltaic project combined with a 120 megawatt hour battery storage system. The developers expect the project to reduce India’s carbon footprint by 4.87 million tons of CO2 over twenty-five years.

However, more is needed. The Adani Group has the size and diversity of businesses to marshal the necessary resources to build something like Khavda. It was able to develop the basic infrastructure—including the roads and telecommunications systems, an airstrip, a self-sustaining ecosystem for a workforce of more than eight thousand, and the transmission lines—within twelve months of launching the project. But Adani, Tata, and other major Indian conglomerates are the exception more than the rule in terms of ability to marshal resources.

To encourage even more private capital and participation, public-private partnerships (PPPs) will be needed. For example, earlier this year, First Solar inaugurated India’s first fully vertically integrated solar manufacturing plant in Tamil Nadu. Buoyed by a $500 million loan from the US International Development Finance Corporation, the First Solar facility will produce its Series 7 photovoltaic solar modules supported by an annual capacity of 3.3 gigawatts while employing approximately one thousand people. This can be a model for future PPPs.

India’s emissions will continue to grow before they peak and fall. The question is, can a third Modi administration continue creative policies that fulfill India’s ambitious climate goals—and will the rest of the world meet India both where it is today and can be tomorrow?

Kapil Sharma is the acting senior director and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Note: The Adani Group is a donor to the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Further reading

Image: Kanniyakumari, May 31 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial for meditation, in Kanniyakumari on Friday. He will meditate here till June 1. (ANI Photo)