Renewable energy: Evolving a strategic interest for states

Increasing the share of Renewable Energy (RE) is considered an important energy policy goal globally. It has rightly received significant public policy attention in India, including a separate ministry and national missions aspiring to achieve ambitious RE targets. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has recently revised the targets five-fold for solar from 22GW to 100 GW by 2022. It is also considering a National Wind mission.

RE appears to be a desirable strategy for India on several fronts other than solely as a climate change mitigation response. It is an opportunity to contain the silent public health and local environment costs of fossil-fuel generation and create industries in the new infrastructure sector consistent with the ‘Make in India’ campaign. Also, for its development agenda, the ability of RE technologies, especially solar and biomass, to be customised for end use in a modular way in the smallest of scales, makes it suitable for electrifying small and remote clusters.

However, none of these strategic interests are explicitly sought in current RE policies. The targets have so far not been consultative of sub-national governments and their institutions for the role RE plays in each state’s power sector goals as well as more broadly in their sustainable development goals. This has created bottlenecks for RE implementation through divergences in priorities between state governments and the Centre. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in two important state subjects –land use for RE and conventional grid and power sector planning.

While several states have resorted to creating land banks for solar systems (Gujarat, Rajasthan), creating co-located land and grid infrastructure have been a challenge for many others; wind project developers report land acquisition as the biggest challenge for further development of the sector. RE nodal agencies often provide the so-called single-window clearance to expedite permits and consents for projects. They however lack a legal and institutional mandate for influencing land-use decisions with district officials who are guided by the state’s land-use policy.

Lacking a framework, the current land allocation procedure for RE is ad hoc at best, and prone to political favouritism at worst, due to its non-transparent nature. Like several other infrastructure sectors, RE will face trade-offs with other social and environmental priorities for land allocation. This is why it is important to situate land-use planning for RE under each state’s sustainable development agenda.

The choice of RE technologies (solar, onshore or offshore wind, waste to energy, biomass) and their flavours (utility-scale vs rooftop solar) need to be guided by this agenda. A guided land allocation process, consistent with each state’s legal provisions for land use and environmental policy, will be a key measure to support the next phase of RE development in the country.

The second divergence lies in the current RE planning process itself; RE plans are added as appendages to conventional power sector plans and often made independently of it. RE capacity addition has very little value without grid infrastructure as well as an assessment of the power system to dispatch it. State RE targets currently follow the national zeitgeist of utility-scale solar and wind without an assessment of how it benefits or conflicts with the other priorities of states such as loss reduction, reduction of peak time shortages, rural electrification and the need for supplying reliable power.

It is difficult to set these objectives, at a national level because the challenges in the sector vary widely between regions and often between states –the type of predominant load served (agricultural vs industrial), geographical spread of its population clusters, regional strength in supply chain for various industries, not to mention the highly-location specific RE resource – all will have a role to play in the choice of technologies and their scales in each state. This is why it is important to have a forum for evolving a state-specific RE strategy that is strongly rooted in their sustainable development goals.

Historical context

A bit of historical context can explain the current weakened role of states in RE decision-making. All discourse and action on RE currently takes place under the Prime Minister’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), which has a national objective of increasing the share of RE in the energy mix to 15 per cent by 2020. RE has been considered a climate change mitigation measure.

In 2009, when the prime minister decentralised climate change action planning and mandated the creation of State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC), mitigation measures were left out of the state’s purview; they were instead asked to focus on adaptation planning. This had implications on the role played by states in RE planning, and the institutions that contribute to it.

A study by researchers at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) about the SAPCC process is revealing - states received mixed messages regarding their role in climate change mitigation planning – where RE is currently situated. The exclusion of RE planning from the SAPCC agenda, which provided a forum for consultation between state-level planning departments, is a huge opportunity missed and need to be mobilised in each state.

Several aspects of RE policy have benefitted from a centralised approach. For example, national-level RPOs have helped to create demand for the more expensive RE power. Also, incentives for specific technologies have enabled a quick scale-up for RE capacity, supporting the development of new industries.

However, a strategic narrative for specific technologies and their scales is sorely missing at present for states and need to be evolved. National level targets and policies must be based on aggregation of these state-level and regional strategies. Without this strategic narrative, the country’s RE ambitions are likely to face further roadblocks.

(The writer is a research scientist at the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bengaluru)
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