The Indian government has okayed a $19.4 billion plan to scale up solar power generation from virtually nothing at present to 20,000 MW in just 11 years, and 10 times that by 2050 — well, at least in principle.
The draft "National Solar Mission" received a nod of approval from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's council on climate change this week. But deal-breaking issues remain.
Namely: Where will all that money come from?
The Indian government expects rich nations to foot the bill, raising a potential obstacle to the plan's success.
Wealthy countries will be urged to fork over international financing and transfer the low-cost solar technologies needed to realize the world's most ambitious solar vision.
That represents a shift from the previous draft plan, seen by the Guardian, which had called for an Indian government subsidy of around $20 billion and falling production prices to cover the costs of the plan.
The about-face shouldn't come as a surprise.
It is entirely consistent with India's increasingly vocal position in the international climate arena — that the developed world bears historic responsibility for global warming and must pay the price for the global changeover to green technologies.
Lately, much to the annoyance of some wealthy nations, the Indian government has been loudly refusing to embrace any mandatory emissions caps, even though the developed world hasn't asked for them.
Last week, the nation's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said there was "no way" India would even discuss mandatory emissions curbs before 2020. A week before that, Ramesh accused the developed world of needlessly raising alarm over vanishing Himalayan glaciers.
And in June, to the astonishment of some Western officials, India demanded that industrialised countries pay poor countries at least $200 billion a year to cut their emissions and grow their fledgling renewable energy economies.
Currently, coal remains the backbone of India's power sector, accounting for some 60 percent of its electricity generation and fueling its fast, fossil-powered industrial growth.
The solar mission would limit future climate damage from the dirty power source.
The plan forms the core of India's seven-part "National Action Plan on Climate Change." And the vision it offers should allay the mounting criticism that India has done too little to fight global climate change.
Some even expect the solar program to give India, the world's fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the "moral high-ground" in the lead up to international climate talks in Copenhagen in December.
"Such unilateral action will give India the moral high-ground because the rich countries have not committed to anything (in terms of finance and technology)," said Siddharth Pathak, Greenpeace India's chief climate campaigner.
There is no doubt India is expecting to use the plan as a major bargaining chip this year. Time will tell if it works: If it gives New Delhi the stronger negotiating position it so clearly is seeking in Copenhagen, if it compels rich nations to dig deeper into their pockets for climate action in poorer countries, or if making its much-needed solar revolution contingent on international financing backfires altogether.
What's clear is this. The solar plan is massive, especially when you consider that the whole planet can generate just about 14,000 MW of solar power today. In 2020, global solar capacity is expected to be only 27,000 MW, according to data from the International Energy Agency.
The goals of India's three-phased plan are as follows: 20,000 MW by 2020, 100,000 MW by 2030, and 200,000 MW by 2050. Solar generation is currently at 5 MW in India. All of the nation's coal, gas and nuclear plants add up to 150,000 MW of power generation capacity.
The resource potential for solar energy is enormous. With 250 to 300 clear sunny days a year, India's solar capacity is a thousand times greater than the country's likely electricity demand by 2015.
And so is the economic opportunity for investors. Nearly 56 percent of India's 1.1 billion-plus population does not have access to electricity. Meaning, India must build, and not rebuild, a vast piece of its energy infrastructure. While rich in coal reserves, the nation could feasibly fill the electricity gap with job-generating and economy-building clean energy.
It could become a solar superpower.
According to the draft plan, India intends to make solar energy as cheap as coal by 2030, reducing the cost of electricity from photovoltaic cells to around 10 cents per kWh.
Certain nuts and bolts of the plan have raised some eyebrows, including its seemingly impossible-to-meet 2020 target and its low cost estimate. A March 2009 Greenpeace report found that for a cost of $195 billion in international financing spread out over 20 years (not including capital costs), India could add 310,000 MW of new renewable energy capacity. Around 45 percent of that would come from solar.
The "National Solar Mission" is expected to be finalized in September. More details will flow.In the meantime, Environment Minister Ramesh continues to assure the world,
"We are not defensive, we are not obstructionist, we want an international agreement in Copenhagen."