Two spectacular co-ordinated events scheduled during French president
Emmanuel Macron’s debut visit have underlined where the Indian
government can legitimately claim global leadership. Last weekend was
the first meeting of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), featuring
23 heads of nations, where the Indian prime minister pledged $1.4
billion assistance for developing 27 solar projects in 15 countries.
Australia’s governor general Peter Cosgrove described the initiative
as “India’s gift to the world to combat climate change.” The following
day, Macron and Modi inaugurated Uttar Pradesh’s largest-ever solar
power plant, posing hand-in-hand with broad matching smiles.

The new plant in UP was built for 500 crore rupees by the French
company ENGIE. It’s spread over 380 acres, comprises almost 120000
individual photovoltaic panels, and generates 1.3 crore electricity
units per month, which is approximately 100 MW per annum
(illustratively, Goa will use around 950 MW this year). But even that
scale is relatively negligible in India’s stunning growth in solar
energy delevopment. Just a week earlier, the Karnataka government
inaugurated the world’s largest solar park spread over 13000 acres in
drought-struck Tumkur, generating 600 MW with another 1400 MW to be
commissioned by the end of the year.

India’s solar success story has been regularly toppling records. In
2016, the country added 4313 MW of solar energy capacity, then ramped
up to a remarkable 7100 MW last year. That was about 40% of total
national growth in power generation, significantly the largest
percentage of any source. This year, total solar electricity
generation will cross 15 GW (one GW equals 1000 MW). That is 15 times
what the entire state of Goa consumes per annum, which is ironic
because India’s smallest state has consistently squandered its
renewable energy potential and lags very far behind its neighbours and
other states in this vital development sector.

There are challenges ahead, and some threats to India’s unquestionably
superb track record. Like almost every other segment of the economy,
renewables was hit hard by the new GST regime, which slapped an extra
5% tax on solar equipment. In addition, there is an ongoing ugly
struggle over cheap and plentiful panels from China (which actually
fuelled India’s boom). Several ports in India now charge 7.5% import
duty, and regulators are proposing a potentially crippling so-called
“emergency tariff” of up to 70% on imports in order to support
domestic manufacturers. At least 3 GW of planned capacity has been
cancelled as a result, and several important tenders are either
delayed or being scrapped altogether.

But this is one area which Narendra Modi’s government prioritizes
greatly, and is unlikely to lightly relinquish its ambitious bid to
lead the world. At the ISA, the Indian prime minister promised 175 GW
of renewable energy sources by 2022. This means doubling all capacity
in just three years, and would catapult India ahead of the entire
European Union in expansion. Using language carefully calibrated to
appeal to his huge political base, Modi said “the Indian vedas have
since thousands of years considered the sun as at soul of the universe
and a nourisher of life. We have to look at this ancient balanced and
all-encompassing philosophy when we today look for ways to deal with
the challenge of climate change.”

That last point hits bullseye on the most pressing reason for the
world to swiftly develop renewable energy options that do not
contribute to global warming. There are now countless signs the planet
is undergoing a dramatic swing towards extreme and unprecedented
weather patterns that pose significant threat to life as we know it.
The four hottest years ever recorded in history are precisely the last
four years. The temperature in several parts of North India now
routinely spike above 45 degrees Celsius in the summer.  Just these
past months the sea ice surrounding the Arctic was registered at an
extraordinary 62000 square miles reduced from last year (which was
itself a record low), caused by temperatures that spiked consistently
25 degrees above normal.

With the sole exception of the disastroun, blundering American
president Donald Trump, most countries in the world have understood
the urgency for solar power growth and development. Emmanuel Macron
generated a lot of hope when he told the ISA gathering, “We have not
come from all continents to deliver speeches that soon be forgotten.
We have come to put plans on the table and give access to solar energy
in the world…we are taking on new commitments to deliver concrete
results for our countries and our planet.”

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