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Government of India taps MIT expertise for energy solutions

Minister Piyush Goyal meets with MIT Energy Initiative and Tata Center leadership, says of India’s electrification goals: “We will make it happen.”
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Honorable Minister Piyush Goyal (second from right), with (l-r) research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, ministry associate Amitabh Prasad, Tata Center Director Rob Stoner, and Professor Ahmed Ghoniem.
Honorable Minister Piyush Goyal (second from right), with (l-r) research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, ministry associate Amitabh Prasad, Tata Center Director Rob Stoner, and Professor Ahmed Ghoniem.
Photo: Ben Miller/MIT Tata Center

India has set some of the most aggressive near-term energy goals of any nation in the world. The man tasked with bringing those goals to fruition, Piyush Goyal, met with researchers from the MIT Energy Initiative and Tata Center for Technology and Design on Sept. 24 to discuss the challenges his government faces and to look for solutions that will help India meet its targets.

Goyal, who serves as minister for coal, power, and renewable energy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that “India is embarking on most of its new development initiatives on the back of technology,” and that “engagement with the United States has been very deep.” Goyal met with U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz earlier in the week.

“Prime Minister Modi has certainly given me a challenging assignment,” Goyal said. “Our objective is to ensure that every part of India gets electricity in the next 1,000 days.”

It is estimated that there are currently 50 million households, or about 220 million people, in India with no access to electricity at all. Of those who do have electricity, many get unreliable service for only a few hours a day. Even in major cities, blackouts and power cuts are a regular occurrence at peak usage times. Goyal said that his own father studied under streetlights as a child, and that within the next six years he was determined to make reliable, 24/7 electricity access a reality across India.

However, the difficulty of such an endeavor is not to be underestimated, particularly when it comes to merging India’s ambitious goals with the facts of climate change. “Thirty percent of our people are below the poverty line, barely making ends meet for two meals a day, let alone three,” Goyal said. “Affordability is a very integral part of our plans. Whenever we talk about climate change, it has to dovetail with affordability as well.”

India relies heavily on coal to power its national grid, and while the country has rich natural coal reserves, the coal is low quality and highly polluting. In addition, many of the coal plants are old and lack modern pollution control systems. The Modi government has announced massive expansions in solar and wind power, but there is no question that coal will remain India’s base fuel in the near future.

Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, agreed that fossil fuels are, for better or worse, an important part of the equation for developing countries that require energy solutions immediately. “We cannot ignore the fact that there are billions of people who need power," he says. "Their lives are in danger unless we help to get the right technology for them. And it needs to happen right now, not fifty years from now.”

Even so, Goyal said that India is committed to doing its part to address climate change. “This is an article of faith for us,” he stated, paraphrasing Modi. “We will be a conscientious world citizen.” He added that modernizing power plants could help reduce emissions from coal burning.

MIT visiting professor Ignacio Perez-Arriaga, an expert in off-grid power systems, said that there was tremendous potential for solar-powered microgrid solutions to reach remote areas, but that the government would have to properly incentivize companies to invest in such projects.

Tata Center Director Rob Stoner said that “a combination of off-grid technologies” could be deployed to achieve universal energy access in rural villages, while Ghoniem added that “there is a need for a portfolio of solutions at very large scale.”

Goyal expressed a desire to work with MIT and to take decisive action in leveraging new technologies and policies to meet India’s electrification targets. The two groups are pursuing a possible bilateral collaboration.

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