Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
Host Madeline Brand: The world’s largest democracy doesn’t consume much electricity per capita compared to other nations. But, it’s starting to catch up. By 2035, it’ll need a lot more electricity -- around 70 percent more per person than what they use now. And, like China, India is making big investments in renewables. But, that won’t be nearly enough to wean them off traditional and cheaper energy sources any time soon. Bianca Vazquez Toness reports.
Bianca Vazquez Toness: Hundreds of millions without electricity are clammering to get it. But, where do you get that extra power? India imports nuclear energy and is only starting to investigate its own natural gas resources. There’s some hydropower, but droughts are hurting that industry. The cheapest and most reliable option is -- coal.
Ashish Sethia, who manages India research for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says: “Coal is the biggest source of power generation in the country. It still will be in the next ten to 15 years. But, the thought process is that renewable energy can increasingly play a bigger role.”
Solar power will play the starring role. In nine years, India’s leaders say they want to produce ten times as much energy from the sun.
As an example of this vision, the wealthy industrialized state of Gujarat unveiled a solar park considered the largest in Asia.
The state’s governor, Narendra Modi, spoke about his ambitions for solar at a ceremony marking the event: “When I announced a solar policy, I wanted to do it on a big scale. I pray, Sungod, Gujarat will show the way to the rest of the world in solar energy.”
It might not be the rest of the world, but two other states in India have plans to build even bigger solar parks than Gujarat.
According to Will Pearson, a clean energy analyst from the Eurasia Group, the three large solar farms in India probably won’t multiply: “In India, it seems like, yes, we’re seeing a few projects going forward, but in most states in India, there’s really very little future for renewables or solar, especially because they can’t even afford to pay for much lower cost coal.”
So, he says India should look for creative ways to make individuals use solar power.
“The optimal future for solar is probably smaller installations and more distributed,” he says.
You can see this in the city of Bangalore. But you have to climb onto the roof to see it.
My guide is Dattananda Shetty from Orb Energy. It’s one of dozens of companies selling solar powered-water heaters in this city. I see thousands of homes extending to the horizon. And, blue solar panels glinting on top. For Shetty, this is normal.
These panels are mandatory in the city of Bangalore for new homes. The federal government subsidizes the solar water heater system. The mornings are cold in Bangalore, so people like their showers hot. All of these things have made Bangalore the city with the most solar water heaters in India.
The village of Torekompolle has dirt roads and the houses are simple. A man walks by with a herd of sheep, while another performs a Hindu blessing.
We get to a one-room schoolhouse where all of the children are standing around outside waiting as their classmate hands out cookies. It’s exam season, but they look happy enough – after all, they’re getting cookies! But, when I ask about the exams, the complaints come. They don’t have enough light at night to study.
This village got hooked into the electricity grid a few years ago, but the power is anything but dependable. So, a solar panel on the roof made a lot of sense.
Mangalama Honnappa is making South Indian coffee. She’s wizened, but remarkably spry for her 80 years. She works in a bare-bones kitchen on a primitive, gas stove. There’s no refrigerator or other basic appliances. As she heats up the milk and heaps in the sugar, a space-age sconce glows behind her. It’s powered by a small solar panel on the roof.
Her husband, Manjunat Honnappa, explains why he was willing to plunk down a $80 dollar deposit for a solar panel: “At night we only get power between 9 and 12 pm. We were spending all of our money on candles and worried about them burning down the house. Now, my wife can cook and my grandson can study without carrying around those candles.”
Their solar panel powers only four lights. If they work well over the next year, Manjunat Honnappa says he may buy another panel to run small appliances like a fan and radio.
If more and more people without 24/7-grid power get their own solar panels, it could take pressure off the government to provide traditional electricity. But, the gap between supply and demand is so great in India, the country will likely rely on coal for years to come.
Reported for America Abroad by Bianca Vazquez Toness.