On the evening of Oct. 6, former Indian Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh gave a talk at MIT, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative, entitled “The Growth Imperative: Plotting a Sustainable Energy Future for India.” Ramesh, currently a 2014 Fall Fisher Family Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, addressed a crowd in the Wong Auditorium. Drawing on his years of experience as a leader in the Indian government, and on the key negotiating roles he played at the UN climate talks in both Cancun and Copenhagen, he laid out the nuances of the present state of India’s energy, and examined in careful detail the myriad possibilities for its future.
Ramesh began his talk with a sobering statement: “India will remain a fossil fuel economy. … I know that’s not a very optimistic way of starting an evening, when all of us are very concerned about global warming and climate change.” Pessimism, however, was far from the core of Ramesh’s talk. From this straightforward acknowledgement of India’s fossil fuel dependency, he moved quickly to discussing both the complex reasoning behind this statement, and the realistic choices India faces in terms of its energy future.
First, he gave the explanation behind his stark beginning. “The world has yet to find a way to decouple emissions from economic growth. Even as India vows to cut its emissions by significant amounts, he explained, coal will remain a critical part of its growing economy. Ramesh also noted that, as India rapidly expands its grid to keep up with this economic growth, the emphasis will first be placed on putting a basic energy structure in place, not on assessing potential areas for the application of renewables.
Ramesh reminded the audience, though, that despite this immense pressure to grow the grid, India’s commitment to sustainability in energy, and its acknowledgement that, as a country, it has “essentially, two options: continuing with coal or expanding renewables.”
He explained the current wind and solar energy capacities in India, making it clear that there was ample room for growth. He cited Germany as evidence of this potential. “Germany has no business being the world leader in solar energy, yet it is. It has no comparative advantage.” Ramesh continued that, with this in mind, India is poised to become a leader in renewable energies. He stressed that India has much to learn from Germany’s current energy economy system, not only its expansive use of renewables like solar, but also its focus on broad-based ownership of energy commodities. In Ramesh’s estimation, Germany’s method of coupling decentralized energy generation to decentralized energy distribution could go very far in a country with such a far-flung population as India’s.
Ramesh next spoke briefly of nuclear energy and hydropower in India, as well, but was quick to point out his belief that neither can be the focus of India’s sustainable energy future. “Much hope has been pinned on nuclear, but it still accounts for only three percent of the electricity in India. It is unlikely to cross four percent by 2030.” As for hydropower, Ramesh pointed to controversies over land, displaced peoples, and natural resources as major reasons why large dams present policy conundrums.
Ramesh stressed the importance of technologies like carbon capture to a currently coal-centered economy like India’s, though he openly acknowledged, “clean coal is an oxymoron.” When faced with energy choices, Ramesh concluded, India “need[s] to choose the path towards renewables, instead of coal, even though both are critical to us.”