Nayan Chanda For The Straits Times

Time to tap solar power

A solar power park in Charanka village in India's western state of Gujarat. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
A solar power park in Charanka village in India's western state of Gujarat. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

With the price of oil tumbling to new lows, some are rejoicing that falling consumer prices and low inflation will finally bring the happy days that Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised during his campaign.

For the sake of a healthier India and a safer world, however, rather than ramp up spending on cheaper fossil fuels, this may instead be the moment for a more responsible correction. Governments all over the world should seize the moment to scale back fuel subsidies that cause budgetary distortions and swell deficits. If they are clever, they may even redirect the sums earmarked for subsidy payments to promote investments in wind, solar and biomass energy.

As someone who has long argued for proactive steps to wean the country off its fossil fuel addiction, I was encouraged by the Modi government's recent moves.

Ahead of hosting the First Renewable Energy Global Investors Meet & Expo next month, the government offered long overdue incentives to grow the solar energy sector. In a written statement submitted to the Lok Sabha in early December, Mr Piyush Goyal, Minister of State for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy, announced fiscal and financial incentives, including capital subsidies for off-grid and decentralised solar power generation systems.

Given the vast area of the country that enjoys regular sunshine, a strategy that focuses on smaller decentralised units avoids the need for the costly development or expansion of electrical grids.

Mr Goyal also wisely offered up to 100 per cent financial support to government and non-profit research organisations and 50 per cent to industry and civil society organisations.

We do not yet have a price tag for these incentives, but we can be sure it will be less than the billions earmarked for oil subsidies for this financial year.

Most importantly, it sends an important message to producers and consumers that it is time to embrace renewable energy as a way forward.

India, which imports 75 per cent of its energy, is considered to be among the winners in the drastic fall of crude oil price, which recently reached its lowest levels in five years.

With the price plunging by 40 per cent since just April, it would have been tempting to woo voters with lower prices of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene oil - but doing so would have squandered this historic opportunity to shift the country's energy policy onto a more sustainable path.

This adjustment could not come soon enough. Following the US-China pact on reducing fossil fuel use, India has come under intense international scrutiny. The announcement by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar that India has stepped up its use of renewable energy and that about 1.1 million households are using solar energy only helped to underline how far behind India is in this area.

Currently only 6.5 per cent of the country's electricity is generated from renewable sources, though Mr Modi aims to almost double this in the next three years. From its currently installed 2.8 gigawatts capacity, India plans to grow solar power generation to 100 gigawatts by 2019-20.

According to an International Energy Agency estimate, governments worldwide paid US$550 billion (S$733 billion) in subsidies to offset the price their consumers pay for fuel.

In comparison, wind, solar and other renewable technologies received subsidies of just US$121 billion in 2014. Last year, the bulk of these subsidies was provided by just five countries: Germany (US$22 billion), the US (US$15 billion), Italy (US$14 billion), Spain (US$8 billion) and China (US$7 billion). It is time that India, the world's third-largest polluter, take its place among countries promoting sustainable and clean energy alternatives.

The forthcoming Renewable Energy Global Investors Meet and India's readiness to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in solar parks will hopefully mark a sunny departure from the coal-powered future that India has pursued so far.

The writer is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Centre, Yale University.