At COP21 in Paris, more than 190 countries committed to contribute to avoiding the rise of global temperatures by more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

This demonstration of climate change awareness, and support for efforts to mitigate it, marks an enormous milestone in history. Now, all 190 countries have to follow through on their commitments, and even go further in many cases. However, the actions of some countries will inevitably weigh more heavily than others.

The US and China are the world’s largest economies and largest greenhouse gas emitters, so eyes unsurprisingly turn to them when questioning which countries must act to meet our global climate goals. However, while India still lags far behind these countries in terms of absolute emissions, its share of global emissions is estimated to more than double, from six per cent today to 14 per cent by 2040, so it can’t be left out of the conversation. And because India is still heavily developing, in many ways it is positioned better than others to drastically reduce emissions while dramatically improving its citizens’ quality of life.

Emissions reductions and economic development intersect at clean energy. In a step toward further development, the government of India is committed to providing all its citizens with electricity. Nearly a quarter of Indians are without electricity service, and there are fears this will be met in the future with dirty coal-fired power. India’s coal demand in future decades is projected to exceed that of any other nation in the world. For a country that currently holds more than one billion people, and is estimated to surpass China’s population mid-century, this adds up to a lot of dirty energy use if India continues on this trajectory. Alternatively, meeting this electrification goal through the addition of clean energy not only avoids further contributions to the already high levels of pollution choking India’s cities, but also reduces reliance on fossil fuels, the emissions of which contribute significantly to climate change.

Achieving nationwide electrification will be no easy feat, no matter whether it is through clean or dirty energy. It will require bringing electricity to about 240 million people, many of which live in rural villages where nearly half of households lack access to electricity. In areas that do have access to the power grid, the distribution utilities are typically burdened by debt and beset by large power loses, either through technical inefficiencies in the grid infrastructure or through outright theft. Utilities typically cannot afford to buy more expensive power generation when demand is high, which leads to regular blackouts. Oftentimes, they are also unable to invest in the necessary infrastructure to get electricity out from where it is generated to the homes and buildings where it is consumed. These issues with the grid have caused millions to instead turn to the use of diesel generators, which now add up to 90 gigawatts (GW) of installed energy capacity, or just over a third of India’s total power.

To bring clean, affordable electricity to all of its citizens, India has announced an impressive goal to add 40 GW of rooftop solar (and 60 GW of medium- and large-scale grid-connected solar projects) by 2022. For a country with only 240 GW of total power currently – less than a quarter of the installed capacity in the United States – this is a big deal.  And its carve-out of rooftop solar specifically will be especially important. Adding 40 GW of distributed rooftop solar is a win-win for India – it will drastically change the lives of India’s citizens while simultaneously working to fulfill its international commitments to combat climate change.

India also sits in a sweet spot for taking advantage of “solar-plus-battery” systems. Solar-plus-battery systems generate electricity through solar PV panels and store any excess electricity generated along with grid-provided power to be used during times when power is needed but the sun isn’t shining or the grid is unavailable. This type of system is particularly favorable for India, where power blackouts are a common occurrence for grid-connected customers. They are also a much cleaner, more efficient, and more affordable option than diesel generators when the power grid goes down. 

Technological innovation within the last couple of decades has transformed nearly every industry around the world. After more than a hundred years, innovation in the power sector is finally taking place as well. India has an enormous opportunity to leapfrog the large-scale, centralized power system paradigm that dominated the 20th century, and instead settle into a model of small-scale, distributed power systems that are cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable at once.

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