Researchers at UC Santa Barbara says India can increase renewable target of 2030

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The world needs more electricity. As populations grow, standards of living increase and more people gain access to modern conveniences, countries will need to expand their energy generation capacity.

India, with its rapidly developing economy and a population of more than 1.3 billion, epitomizes this trend.

Recently, the Indian government set a target of 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030. For comparison, the country’s total energy generation capacity today is about 380 gigawatts, out of which 90 gigawatts are of renewable energy, not including large hydropower stations

It’s ambitious. But based purely on economics, UC Santa Barbara’s Ranjit Deshmukh, and his co-authors Duncan Callaway and Amol Phadke, think India should in fact double down on renewables.

The study examines electricity and carbon mitigation costs associated with achieving aggressive renewable energy targets in India’s electricity grid in 2030, and finds that wind-majority or balanced wind-solar targets have the most cost-effective potential for power in India.

It revealed in the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that building significant numbers of wind and solar plants (600 GW) will reduce how often fossil fuel power plants must run.

The results indicated that while renewables won’t obviate the need for some additional fossil-fuel power plants, the country is well-positioned to take advantage of green energy sources.

This will hold India’s 2030 electricity emissions at its 2018 level, at costs comparable to a fossil fuel-dominated grid while nearly doubling the supply of electricity.

Mitigating carbon emissions is only one concern when it comes to developing countries like India.

“Most of these countries have low historical carbon emissions compared to more industrialized countries,” said Deshmukh, an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program. “So, the approach we take is that if renewable energy makes economic sense, then those countries should deploy more of it.”

Because the cost of wind and solar, as well as battery storage, are dropping so rapidly, Deshmukh explained, it’s actually cost effective to install these technologies instead of conventional fossil fuel technologies, like coal and natural gas, regardless of environmental considerations.

To arrive at these conclusions, the researchers created a comprehensive model of India’s electricity system. They developed estimates of the country’s solar and wind resources using spatial analysis and weather data along with India’s existing energy capacity and predictions of its energy demand in the future.

For each possible renewable energy target and mix of wind and solar capacity, the model determined the amount of new conventional capacity needed to meet demand for all hours of the year.

“The model’s unprecedented detail on wind and solar resource availability provided foundation to explore how a range of important scenarios for India’s load growth and technology costs could influence the future of India’s power sector,” said Callaway, an associate professor of Energy and Resources at UC Berkeley.

Deshmukh and colleagues found that, contrary to prevailing assumptions, meeting high renewable targets would not avert the need to build a significant number of fossil fuel power plants, due to India’s specific weather patterns and the requirements of meeting peak electricity demand. However, avoiding new fossil fuel capacity isn’t the entire picture, he claimed.

The authors laid out solar (left) and wind (right) energy sites that could fulfill different renewable energy capacity targets, from 100 to 600 GW. Credit: Deshmukh et al.

Energy sources like solar and wind pose a challenge to grid operators, as they can only provide energy under certain weather conditions, which don’t always align with energy usage.

“You can harness a significant amount of renewable energy, but it may not avoid much of the planned fossil fuel capacity,” said Deshmukh. “But does that mean you shouldn’t develop renewable energy? No. The more renewable energy capacity you install, the less often you need to run those coal plants.”

This small nuance can make a great deal of financial difference. India may need to build more conventional power plants to meet peak demand regardless of its investments in renewable capacity.

What’s more, with its pronounced seasons, India is also well situated to harness the glut of wind energy available during the monsoons, Deshmukh explained.

In this light, Deshmukh recommends the country shifts its targets, which currently stress solar capacity, more toward wind. “Wind-dominated or balanced wind and solar, targets are more economical and require fewer coal and gas plants,” he said. That said, improved battery storage could make solar more competitive.

Batteries are becoming a cost-effective tool for smoothing differences between energy supply and demand. They can store clean energy for times of peak demand, averting the need to call on conventional power plants, especially the expensive ones that will be operated infrequently.

Without this ability to store and shift energy, renewables may not be able to prevent the need for building new coal and natural gas power plants if India hopes to meet peak demand.

Fortunately, prices are already becoming so low that it will soon be less expensive to install batteries to store energy when demand is low compared to increasing power production when demand is high.

This will shift economic factors even more toward renewable energy.