India Sees (Some Of) the Light on Solar Thermal Potential

July 02, 2008

On Monday, one week in advance of the climate-themed G8 Summit in Japan, the Indian government released its first ever national climate change action plan. In line with previous statements by India and other developing countries, no specific emission targets or timetables were presented. That fact -- which is no surprise to anyone following the issue -- nonetheless seems to be garnering most of the press attention. Far more important and interesting were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's comments in an associated speech. Said Singh:

We will pool all our scientific, technical and managerial talents, with financial sources, to develop solar energy as a source of abundant energy to power our economy and to transform the lives of our people.

Hear! Hear! This is a forceful and welcome statement, especially since the "scientific, technical, and managerial talents" of India are no small contribution to this fight. The engineering skills found in Indian universities and large corporations such as the Tata Group are some of the best in the world. Deployed in earnest they would poise India for an energy revolution exceeding even the agricultural revolution of 40 years ago in its scale and impact. It appears that India's solar energy initiative would aim to provide at least 10% of the country's power over the next few years, a truly positive development.

Unfortunately, the document outlining India's energy strategy underestimates India's potential to begin implementing solar power right now. The solar thermal section, for example, oddly fails to mention recent advances in flat-panel, Fresnel-based systems, which are likely the cheapest and fastest to install. With U.S.-based Ausra opening a factory in Nevada to produce more than 700 MW of such systems annually, how about a licensed sister factory in Mumbai? After all, Tata Motors is already doing the same on the transportation side, introducing a European-designed, Indian-built compressed air car – reportedly as early as next month. Certainly there is political appetite in the U.S. for such cooperation, as evidenced by the pledge of a recent bipartisan Congressional delegation to India, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to expand "partnerships for facilitating trade and development of clean energy technologies." Anyone looking to support American 'green-collar jobs' would see a tremendous opportunity in India's ambitious clean tech goals.

nameSo, let's think big: I've tabulated some conservative figures for low-cost solar thermal power potential in India. In fact, the numbers are very conservative: I've assumed that solar arrays are constructed only on currently uninhabited, uncultivated land with zero agricultural (crop or grazing) potential, sparse vegetation, and good solar radiation supply. I've also removed from consideration any reserves or areas of high biodiversity and land exhibiting anything other than lowest-cost construction potential (very flat, no sand dunes, etc.). And finally, I've retained only large, contiguous areas -- land tracts sufficient for 500 MW solar thermal installations (the scale reduces costs even further).Even in India, where almost all of the land is used to house and feed a burgeoning population, that tight set of restrictions still leaves more than 16,000 square kilometers of potential solar thermal arrays, mostly in the arid northwest (see map). Recent advances in low-loss, high-voltage transmission lines mean it would be possible to provide all of India's electricity from this area. With heat storage, that land could conservatively generate 4 billion megawatt-hours of zero-emission, baseload power per year. This year, total fossil-fueled electricity production in India will likely be a bit above 600 million megawatt-hours. The bottom line is impressive: India's current potential for low-cost, solar thermal power is at least six times greater than current power production from fossil fuels. That potential comes without carbon emissions, local pollutants, or fuel price volatility. And there's another benefit (also not mentioned in the government's report) of particular relevance to India's future: Dry-cooled solar thermal uses 98% less water than coal plants. That little bit of water is used mostly to keep the mirrors clean.

On top of this physical potential are the incredible opportunities for learning and cost reductions with rapid expansion. My colleague David Wheeler and I simulate this process on the global scale in a forthcoming working paper and find the cost of displacing coal power to be far less than most expect (see World Bank Power Projects: Crossroads on Renewable Energy for a preview). With strategic financing from developed world donors, India could quickly -- far more quickly than the government seems to believe -- generate vast amounts of increasingly cheap solar power.That the Indian government is signaling its desire to be an important player in this transition is a promising sign. Will developed world donors and the World Bank use the proposed Clean Technology Fund to fully exploit this potential? Or will habit, half-measures, and conventional wisdom fail the Indian people and the planet?


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.