Transition to Solar Energy and Energy Justice in India

Transition to Solar Energy and Energy Justice in India

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Gargi Adhikari

Recent assertions by the government of India with regards to energy has brought to focus its commitment to implementing a sustainable energy transition in the country, keeping in tandem with both the energy demands of the country, as well as the raising global concerns around controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, containing the already complicated climate situation of the world. One needs to take a keen look into the repercussions of such assertions, both on the economy of the country, as well as on the consumer-prismed household sector. In that context, ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid’ mission, introduced by the Prime Minister of the country at the Third Global Renewable Energy Investment Meeting Expo, becomes an important study to consider, given its imminent impact on both the above-mentioned sectors with the country’s grand plans to embark on an eminence on solar energy. At the energy justice front, there is also the need to investigate, in the context of the above, whether these claims towards a sustainable energy transition include sufficient scope for a just transition that include the distribution of energy for ensuring human security. The question of accountability is something that comes to mind whenever there is the need to understand policy initiatives, be it involving the energy sector or any development sector of a country. Accountability becomes intrinsically involved in ensuring human security, and thus, comes to play an important part in the energy transition of a country. The need to understand who policy initiatives of any kind involve and who they are directed towards is intrinsic in its critical analysis. Drawing from it is the assumption that a policy initiative must involve capacity building of the people they are targeted towards. In the same token thus, while initiating energy transition, the policymaker must not lose sight of where the accountability of the policy in question lies.

There has been a noticeable shift in several countries towards the harnessing of renewable energy, especially after the pandemic literally stagnated fossil fuel-based economies. The European Parliament has ramped up its assertion towards the European Green Deal.

Developed economies of Asia like South Korea have also reasserted their commitment to the Green New Deal. Amidst all, India had aimed to reach 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022, out of which 100GW being from the harnessing of solar energy. Similarly, the government of India, keeping sustainable solutions to energy security in mind, like the rest of the world after the pandemic, has embarked on a grand plan to initiate the ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid’ mission, first initiated at the first assembly of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in 2018. Through this initiative, India seeks to generate and distribute, through transnational connectivity, solar energy to sections of the world, commencing an energy-based alliance with them. The commitment of the Indian government towards this initiative has been steady, to begin with, and has found mention in multiple speeches by the Prime Minister in March 2019, in the very crucial August 15th Independence Day speech in 2020, as well as a November 2020 speech by him at the 3rd Global Renewable Energy Investment Meeting and Expo. Through this initiative, India can foresee itself to not only create energy sustenance for itself but also to emerge as an international exporter of energy, exploiting its tropical geographical conditions conducive to harness solar power. ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid’ finds its initiation through as a following to the ‘One Nation One Grid’ policy of India, whereby the government of the country attempts to increase the share of natural gas in the energy mix of India by 15 percent by the year 2030, as espoused by the Prime Minister himself in his March 2019 speech.

While it has been found that increasing the share of solar in the energy mix of India will increase its chances of being ‘Atmanirbhar’(self-reliant), shielding it from any economic slowdown brought forth by future international slumps brought forth by the pandemic, the pandemic has exposed the solar sector’s import dependence with respect to infrastructure crippling this progress towards ‘atmanirbharta’, to begin with. While the cost of installation of solar power plants is considerably low compared to the installation of hydel power plants producing the same amount of energy, the import dependence of the solar sector comes as a major debilitating challenge. Thus, developing indigenous technologies and creating a fast implementable strategy, especially towards solar equipment manufacturing like the manufacturing of solar cells to support the solar sector, must become one of the bedrocks of building a self-reliant, sustainable, solar-based future for India.

Notwithstanding this major roadblock to the sector, it must be noted that the transition to solar power might rather be a solution that attempts to probably solve the issue of energy distribution and accountability to the ultimate consumers to a large extent for India. The Indian energy sector has been plagued by a disparaging gap with respect to the production and distribution of energy from source to consumption. Also, there have been disparities between energy-rich and energy-consuming regions in India. Further, there have been imbalances in both distribution and the subsequent consumption of energy patterns between urban and rural areas of the country. If properly implemented, installation of solar rooftop energy generation seeks to bridge these gaps. While large-scale solar energy power plants seek to create employment and sustenance for people, the creation of cooperatives around rural-based small-scale power plants shows hopeful involvement of consumer-based community development. This not only contributes to the creation of knowledge but also the formulation of accountability, through direct participation and involvement among the stakeholders of the sector, who are ultimately the consumers.

However, one major problem that questions energy justice being ensured is that the process has involved the establishment of large-scale solar power plants and land grab. Rural communities that have depended, through generations, on a piece of land that the government of India has subsequently designated for the construction of solar power plants, have come under resistance. While the 2013 Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of India has ensured people the right to their private pieces of land, the government’s decision to distribute land for solar development projects to private players does not come under this jurisdiction. This has created friction among people, their communities, and the government, on ‘rights’ to the land that might be under the wings of the government but on which the livelihoods of the communities have depended through generations. In this context, one needs to reevaluate energy justice in the context of how communities come to be viewed not only as consumers but also stakeholders at the production end of harnessing of resources. Who does the land belong to? Even when the laws of the land determine that it indeed belongs to the government, what does the government consist of but the will of the people? Further, the unfettered march of the private sector in the energy sector must always be taken with a pinch of salt. While it is agreed that there is a practical need for investment in a development sector, the unchallenged involvement of the private sector to land that communities lay claim to, albeit their government, might seem unfair to begin with. Does this, in fact, contribute to the democratisation of the sector and its distribution capacity? These are questions that need to be addressed before the solar self-reliance dream of India can come to fruition. Without such undertaking, the country’s commitment to energy justice shall be incomplete, to say the least.

Dr. Gargi Adhikari is a Research Associate with The Research Collective, Programme for Social Action (PSA), New Delhi.