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a solar wind park
Tamil Nadu, India

Renewable Energy: Challenges of People, Environment and Future Energy

People living in mountains, forests, river banks and villages are still waiting for enough electricity for their day-to-day life. Renewable energy can bring a better change in the lives of these people. People living in these areas are also the most victims of natural disasters due to rising global temperatures.

Renewable energy is a strong option to tackle the challenges of climate change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had set an ambitious target of 500 GW of renewable energy by 2030 at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November last year in order to achieve the Nationally Determined Contribution Targets (INDC) to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Despite the steady progress in the renewable energy sector, entrepreneurs working in this sector are facing policy difficulties. Experts agree that there is a need to reform policies at the central and state level, so that small-medium entrepreneurs working in this field can be encouraged to move forward.

overhead shot of village
Hillside communities are waiting for power / Credit: Varsha Singh.

Waiting for power

Solar street lights not only illuminated the nights of village Kafulta as soon as the sun set in Tehri, but also gave safety to the women and children of the village, more time to study, ease in household chores, etc. Last year in October I spent a night in this village. The women of the village told me that during the rainy season and winter snowfall, there is no electricity in the village for several days. In such a situation, solar street lights gave them confidence. The need for rooftop solar was felt a lot in the houses of this village. But the women of the village were not aware of this. They were angry that people's representatives come from door to door asking for votes but do not inform them about such schemes.

Power of ‘power’

Human development index and energy consumption are closely related. The Economic Survey 2018-19 stated that India needs to increase its per capita energy consumption by at least 2.5%. Energy enables access to water, food security, health, education, skill development, and livelihood as well as gender equality. Energy available at adequate and affordable rates also helps in meeting the challenges of climate change.

According to the Human Development Report of the United National Development Program (UNDP) released in the year 2020, India was ranked 131st out of 189 countries. According to the report, India could not even make it to the medium human development category with a score of 0.645. The energy consumption in India in the year 2020 was 23.2 gigajoules/per capita, whereas China was 101.2 gigajoules/per capita and the global average was 71.5 gigajoules/per capita. (Gigajoule is a unit of measurement of energy.)

graphical illustration of emissions

People’s power

Dr. Anita Varghese, Biodiversity Director at the Keystone Foundation, an organization working with the local community on people-environment issues amidst the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, says, “We usually think of providing essential amenities like electricity or water to urban areas and do not think of providing basic facilities to the people living in villages or remote areas. Renewable energy can be a good option for such sectors”.

Anita says that we need to make plans for the people living on the banks of mountains, forests, rivers. “A large part of the country could not connect to this system when schools went online during the Covid-19 lockdown, because they did not have access to electricity or internet. When floods or natural calamities occur, these remote mountainous areas face a lot of trouble. People do not even know who is trapped where. The special thing with solar energy is that it can be produced where sunlight reaches and can be useful to the people there. Even where there are no transmission lines, electricity can be delivered through solar-wind power."

According to the report of the International Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuels contribute the most to the emission of greenhouse gases, which is a major cause of climate change. Renewable energy is a powerful option to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from the energy sector and to meet the increasing demand for energy.

By March 2022, the country has achieved 157 GW of renewable energy generation capacity including solar-wind power. It is imperative to increase renewable energy generation to reach net-zero, the target of 500 gigawatts by 2030 and zero India's greenhouse gas emissions by 2070.

Tamil Nadu is the top state in India in terms of renewable energy with a capacity of 15,914 MW. In which solar power generation capacity is 4,894 MW and wind power capacity is 9,857 MW. Windmills and solar-wind power hybrid parks in Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts of the state give hope to achieve the country's renewable energy goals. But the difficulties faced by energy entrepreneurs here demand policy change.

Problems of energy entrepreneurs

Along with big entrepreneurs, small-medium entrepreneurs also have an important role to play in achieving renewable energy goals. The central government is encouraging entrepreneurs to come and increase investments in this sector. But are the policies moving in the right direction?

Ramco Wind Farm in Muppandal, Tamil Nadu was established in 1993. Most of the windmills in this wind farm, built on the best wind pass in the country (where the maximum wind power can be obtained), are obsolete, causing the energy production to decrease. There are technical and structural difficulties associated with options such as increasing the tower height of windmills, increasing the blade size or replacing them with new modern machines.

In 2016, the central government also came out with a re-powering policy for wind power projects. If machines of up to 250, 500, 800 kW capacity of 90s are replaced by machines of 1 to 4 MW on the basis of existing technology, then the energy production from the same wind park will increase manifold.

Francis Jayasuriya of the Global Wind Energy Council says that the government has come up with a re-powering policy but nothing is being done on it. There is no room left for new wind farms in these areas of Tamil Nadu. No help or subsidy is being given by the government to the entrepreneurs for re-powering the old wind farm. Its cost is a big problem for entrepreneurs. Along with this, all the wind farms will have to be taken along and the transmission lines will have to be changed. This is not possible without the initiative of the government.

Arun Balan, director of CALS Renewable Energy Company, which operates in Tamil Nadu's solar-wind power sector, says that due to the reverse auction (bidding at the lowest rate) system, the price of power made from renewable energy has fallen by Rs 2.50 per unit. Due to which the entrepreneurs are incurring losses and finding it difficult to recover the cost. Considering the cost involved in setting up a solar-wind power farm, their minimum price should be fixed. Balan says that many wind farms, including his company, owe the government more than a year.

wind farm against mountain backdrop
Tamil Nadu wind farm / Credit: Varsha Singh.

Energy entrepreneurs also have trouble with the fact that many solar-wind farms are not connected to the grid. His complaint is that the state's power distribution companies refuse to provide grid connectivity. Suzlon company executives say that they deliver electricity generated on their wind forms to cement, steel, rubber manufacturing companies or hotels.

R Srinivasan, who covers the energy sector and former editor of The Hindu Business Line, says, “There are several policy initiatives that can be taken to reform the renewable energy sector. The government must buy electricity from renewable energy sources. This is ignored by the state power distribution companies, because they have the option of taking cheap electricity like coal. We have to decide whether small or medium energy entrepreneurs get the benefit of their capital investment.”

Srinivasan says that the advantage of the auction system in electricity rates naturally goes to the big players. We need to provide financial help to small companies working in the energy sector. Also, delays of up to a year in payments create a huge financial crisis for small companies and can even push them out of the sector.

These are the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in a state like Tamil Nadu, a leader in renewable energy generation. Addressing these difficulties of entrepreneurs and more liberal policies are needed to achieve the target of 500 GW by 2030, so that entrepreneurs across the country can be encouraged to take initiatives in the renewable energy sector and arrangements can be made to provide sustainable electricity to villages and remote areas.

Varsha Singh produced this story at  Earth Journalism Network's Renewable Energy workshop in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. It was originally published in Hindi in News Click on July 30, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A solar wind park / Credit: Varsha Singh.