A leaked early version of the Indian Government’s national solar energy plan indicates that India may be thinking more ambitiously about a “clean energy” roadmap than was previously anticipated. Although the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change is yet to approve the plan, and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has not confirmed the claim, this possibility raises important questions for India’s energy future, namely: Could a large-scale transition to solar power and other renewables be economically and technically possible? And if so, what would it take?

India is home to one of the most abundant solar resources in the world, with 2.97 million square kilometers of tropical and subtropical land and an average of 250-300 clear sunny days a year. As such, solar power offers significant potential to meet a large share of the country’s energy needs using both centralized and decentralized production.

Such changes, if realized, could dwarf current solar leaders Germany, Spain, Japan, and the United States in both domestic market size and export manufacturing. They would also create a hefty job market in solar manufacturing and installation.

According to the leaked document, India’s “solar mission” will include measures for rapidly expanding the use of small-scale photovoltaic panels, solar lighting systems, and commercial-scale solar plants, in order to drive down costs and encourage domestic solar manufacturing. The efforts would occur in both rural and urban areas and target residential as well as commercial users. The plan also proposes scaling-up centralized solar thermal power generation, with the aim of achieving cost parity with conventional grid power by 2020 and the full necessary energy infrastructure by 2050.

With India’s installed solar capacity currently at only 3 megawatts, this would be the most ambitious solar plan that any country has laid out so far. The scope of the initiative would also match and ultimately far exceed India’s plans for nuclear power generation.

Several recent studies have outlined wider renewable energy scenarios for India, including Energy Revolution, a report released by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council in March and Mitigation Options for India: The Role of the International Community released by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in December 2007. Both reports encourage the transition to solar power as a critical way for India to boost its energy security and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Both the Greenpeace and TERI studies operate from the premise that global carbon emissions must peak by no later than 2015 to avoid dangerous emission levels. They make the case that it is not only technically and economically feasible for India to make the shift to renewable energy sources (if this rollout is combined with energy-efficiency measures), but also prudent to begin this transition now.There are several reasons for this urgency. First, the reports note that India’s power-generation infrastructure is undergoing rapid expansion to meet national development objectives, with the country still facing unmet power demands that equate to as much as 80 percent of current installed capacity. Second, they point to rising energy security concerns as energy prices go up and supply shrink, making it a ripe time to shift to a new model of energy production.

Both reports offer recommendations for how such a shift could happen. Proposed steps include a widespread scaling-up of both decentralized energy production and centralized renewable energy production (particularly solar photovoltaic, concentrating solar power, wind, and biomass); the use of combined heat-and-power systems at the point of generation; the decarburization of transport fuel (with an emphasis on electric vehicles and other sustainable forms of transportation); an increase in research and development across energy segments; and improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, transport, appliances, industrial processes, and power transmission.

The reports differ in their approach to nuclear energy, with TERI stating that nuclear will play a key role in India’s power sector in the medium to long term, and the Greenpeace study not including it at all.

According to both reports, the primary obstacles facing India’s rapid shift to renewable energy are the upfront investment costs required and the need for the strong political will. Solar would be pivotal in both cases, with concentrated solar power alone making up 61 percent and 31 percent of the total mix for the two scenarios, respectively. Energy revolution concluded that it is possible for 69 percent of India’s electricity and 70 percent of India’s heating and cooling needs to come from renewable sources by 2050 – but capturing this opportunity “would require an additional investment of $154 billion This would clearly fall far short of the estimated funding needs for such a massive and rapid rollout of solar energy, if compared with the estimates above. Both Greenpeace and TERI suggest the use of international financing mechanisms to bridge the cost gap, a proposal in line with the Indian government’s rhetoric in the ongoing international climate negotiations Targets such as those outlined in the leaked solar energy report and recommended in the recent renewables studies would raise the bar of opportunity for scale, pace, impact, and actionable political will. However, India would need a significant machinery overhaul to implement such a change, relying on the support of international collaboration.