The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge to industrial and economic growth across the world. Even as industries begin to recover, as per some reports, businesses continue to operate at limited capacities with India seeing lower factory outputs and contraction of industrial production. This has resulted in trends that point towards a global recession. However, even amid such a contraction of economic growth both in India and worldwide, in its Renewables 2020 Report the International Energy Agency (IEA) has opined that the deployment and development of renewable energy (RE) have remained largely resistant and resilient to the conditions imposed by the pandemic- a trend that seems to be reflected in the Indian diaspora as well. There are predictions that even as there are short term falls in the installed capacity of distributed renewable energy, the industry itself will bounce back. This is in part helped by the short term relief provided to the power sector (which includes renewable energy) by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) since late March, 2020. 

It is in the background of these recent developments that India hosted its 3rd Global RE-INVEST Renewable Energy Investors Meet & Expo from 27th to 29th November 2020. The conference was organized virtually by the MNRE, with its earlier iterations taking place in 2015 and 2018. The conference was themed “Innovations for Sustainable Energy Transition” and it had the overarching aim to “engage, ideate and innovate” on issues surrounding the effort to “connect the global investment community with Indian energy stakeholders.”

Energy efficiency has long been an issue for the Indian power sector. Even as installed capacity exceeds demand, many parts of the country face acute power shortages. At the same time, in India, coal has long been the most utilized source through which power demand has been met. As per the 2019 BP Outlook for India, 42% of energy demands in India are met by coal which is expected to increase to 80% by 2040. The challenge before the country has thus been to balance energy demand efficiently while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. On the policy front, attempts have been made to balance these seemingly opposing demands through investment in renewable energy which (as traced in this review), began as early as 1976 with the establishment of the Solar PV R&D program 1976. In the decades that followed, India established inter alia the MNRE in 1992, adopted the Energy Conservation Act 2001, created the National Action Plan of Climate Change in 2008, and in 2015 signed the historic Paris Agreement. 

Despite varying policy inefficiencies over the years, the opinions of experts across a variety of fora seems to indicate that India is currently at the cusp of a renewable energy revolution. A DTE article explains that India is likely to contribute the most towards the growth of the global renewable energy sector in 2021 such that both ‘total wind and solar PV capacity in India is on course to surpass natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024’. India is on course to comfortably meet two key commitments to the Paris Agreement – reducing emissions and increasing the share of non-fossil fuel power generation capacity. The country has also managed to accentuate its commitment to install non-fossil fuel energy of up to 450 GW by 2020. 

It is perhaps this very optimism that was reflected in the Prime Ministers’ inaugural speech delivered virtually on the first day of the RE-INVEST Meet. The Prime Minister highlighted the efforts made by the government to increase renewable energy capacity in India which he claimed has exceeded the annual addition of coal-based thermal power since 2017. He added that renewable energy deployment plans are likely to generate business prospects of around $20 billion per year over the next decade. Importantly he linked environmental policies to economics by stating that economies of scale are bringing costs on renewable energy down. 

The RE-INVEST Meet seemingly arrived at the cusp of a major upswing in the renewable energy sector in India. The many diverse aspects of India’s fast-evolving renewable energy story were reflected in the expansive agenda of the Meet which hosted multiple parallel panels and sessions ranging from broader conversations with global leaders on the concept of conscientious enterprise and more specific discussions focussed inter alia on the future of renewable energy in terms of corporate responsibility, R&D, the internet, and grid balancing. 

The Prime Minister’s overarching message of self-reliance was adopted in the agenda of the conference through a Plenary Session on “Renewable Energy: Creating Atmanirbhar Bharat” which acknowledged the importance of lessening import dependencies in the renewable energy sector, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adjacent to this idea of self-reliance is also the possibility of employment generation in a post COVID economy. RE created 11.5 million jobs in 2019 globally and has the potential to create local jobs in India as well. Multiple panels at the conference discussed this phenomenon from varying perspectives. These discussions ranged from the need to create skilled and qualified manpower for the RE sector in the session titled “Skilling for Renewable: From IT to IIT” which addressed the gaps and strategies required to create employment opportunities to discussions on the role of women in RE and the challenges of promoting female entrepreneurship therein. 

A pivotal part of the growth of RE in India has been the growing solar energy sector. Despite some setbacks, India has seen substantial growth in the installation of solar power due to increased cost-effectiveness. India also launched the International Solar Alliance in 2015 intending to address the special energy needs of ‘solar resource-rich countries’. Appropriately, the Meet hosted multiple panels focused on the solar energy sector with discussions ranging from cost-reduction roadmaps and the possibility of integrating solar power into daily life to panels focused on “Solarizing Agriculture” which discussed the use of solar power to provide for energy requirements of marginal farmers. 

While the program of the conference focused primarily on the realities of the Indian market, panels were also held on the renewable energy policies of nations such as France, Denmark, and Australia as well as international organizations such as the European Union. This is significant in terms of Indian foreign policy as well, particularly as this conference followed the India-EU Summit held in July 2020. The growing partnership between the EU and India may shape to be of importance as the world considers post-pandemic recovery and the role that may be played by renewable energy in that regard. 

The outlook for renewable energy in India is optimistic. Although, it is important to acknowledge that some opinions including those from IEA experts have stated in the same breath that reaching India’s increased target of installing 450 GW of renewable energy, will require a considerable increase in the pace of installation. As India along with the rest of the world prepares to recover from the pandemic and rebuild, perhaps we will be accorded a new chance to keep the climate at the forefront of policy decisions. The RE-Invest Meet thus comes at an opportune moment and will hopefully hark greater and smarter investment in the RE sector in India.

By Devika Jain, Research Associate, Policy, LQF