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Power Hungry
India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a 'big thinker' when it comes to energy. But in his country's case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?

Two years ago, as Indians sweated through 115-degree temperatures on the eve of an unusually late monsoon, the electricity grid collapsed across the entire northern tier of the country. The two successive blackouts that resulted represented the biggest power outage in history, affecting more than 620 million people. Airports, railways, and offices shut down. Streets were gridlocked. Miners were trapped underground. Hospitals struggled to keep patients alive with backup generators.

With an economy that was already showing signs of stalling after years of impressive growth, the grid failure was a brutal blow to the nation’s self-confidence. Could India really be taken seriously as a prosperous modern economy—a rival to China—if its basic infrastructure was in such ramshackle shape?

India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, promises that such a thing will never happen again, that he will find solutions commensurate with the scale of the country’s power problem—starting with the fact that 400 million people, almost one-third of India’s total population, lack reliable access to electricity. Modi has vowed to unleash the creativity of the private sector in order to put an end to India’s endemic corruption and the gross inefficiency of its government institutions. By 2022, he promises, “every family will have a pukka house with water connection, toilet facilities, and 24-7 electricity supply.” [Pukka is a Hindi word meaning solid or permanent.]

With the aura of a miracle worker, Modi seems to offer something for everyone: for young professionals fretful about their future security, for a business community sick of red tape, for the rural poor and lower castes who identify with his own humble background as the son of a chai wallah—a tea-seller at a railway station.

400 million people, almost one-third of India’s total population, lack reliable access to electricity.

You’d have to be a hardened cynic to dismiss all of Modi’s promises as mere campaign rhetoric. The Press Trust of India has called him the country’s “first energy-literate prime minister.” As part of his effort to transform the cumbersome government bureaucracy, he has created a single new energy ministry to replace the older model whereby power, coal, and renewables were handled as three separate portfolios, inevitably resulting in confusion and inefficiency. The leader of the world’s third biggest carbon polluter (after China and the United States) has explicitly acknowledged the reality of climate change, and the urgent need to adapt to it. His new environment minister has promised that India—which has so far resisted any mandatory limits on its carbon emissions—“will do more meaningful representation” in the search for a new global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

An even more encouraging sign was to be found in a line from one of Modi’s campaign speeches: that “God has showered our country with an abundance of renewable energy.”

Most of that renewable energy, as it happens, comes in the form of sunshine—and Modi offers up his native Gujarat, a “power-surplus” state with a dynamic business class, as a model of the solar revolution that he now intends to bring to the rest of India. Four years ago, Modi’s predecessor unveiled a National Solar Mission to generate 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2022. (For the sake of comparison, current capacity in the United States is about 13,000.) Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister for more than a decade, currently produces more a third of India’s solar energy, and its newly commissioned 600-megawatt Charanka Solar Park has eclipsed California’s Topaz Solar Farm as the biggest in the world. Several more of these “ultra-mega” plants are on the drawing board.

But just because something works for Gujarat doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for India as a whole. I recently had dinner in Kolkata with a journalist for one of India’s leading news magazines, who ticked off some of the reasons for remaining skeptical. First was the fact that Gujarat, together with its neighboring desert state of Rajasthan (which ranks second in solar energy production), is the sunniest place in India.

Second, although he might like to take some degree of credit for it, it’s not as if Modi invented the entrepreneurial energy that marks the business culture of his home state; it actually dates back many centuries to Gujarat’s historic role as a trading hub on the Arabian Sea.

Third, my dining companion said, Modi’s sense of scale seems to be a bit off: citing his own success at cleaning up the Sabarmati River, which flows through Gujarat’s state capital of Ahmedabad, the new Indian prime minister has vowed to clean up the Ganges in a similar fashion. But the comparison is close to laughable. True, Ahmedabad’s riverfront has been transformed into a pleasant place for an evening stroll. But the Ganges is a 1,500-mile-long open sewer: India’s answer to the Augean Stables. Governments have been throwing billions of dollars at the problem for almost 30 years, with no discernible results.

In fact, when placed under scrutiny, Modi’s energy policy—for all his talk of renewables and sustainability—is really just a bigger and more aggressive version of President Obama’s “all of the above” strategy, one that effectively streamlines the approval process for a host of environmentally damaging projects.

The clues have been there all along: during his presidential campaign, which was massively supported by oil and gas companies, Modi promised a rapid expansion of shale gas production. And then there’s his subtle sophistry on coal, a fuel source that currently accounts for almost 70 percent of India’s energy mix. Modi has said that he wants to reduce that percentage—but that’s not the same thing, of course, as reducing the volume. On the contrary, he has vowed to increase domestic coal production in order to meet his country’s soaring demand for energy. Until then, he’s content to keep buying plenty of it on the open market. India’s coal imports doubled last year—one reason why U.S. coal giants like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are so intent on building new export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

Read more from this column: Global Current

The phrase “ultra-mega” could be used to sum up Modi’s entire approach to energy. But while gargantuan new projects may help to keep the air-conditioners running in Delhi, they don’t necessarily do much to help the thousands of villages where almost all of India’s power-deprived 400 million citizens live. Spend some time in any of these places and you’ll see a tragicomedy of failed aspirations: power poles without power lines, cobwebbed electricity meters unconnected to any sort of wiring, juice that flows only for a few hours in the middle of the night when no one can use it. Just enough signs of progress for some bureaucrat to check one more item off his target list for “newly electrified villages.”

The farce underscores a salient fact: no matter how dynamic and efficient India’s central government may become under Modi, the generation, provision, and cost of electricity are still set by each of the country’s 29 states. In most cases, “dynamic and efficient” aren’t exactly the first words that come to mind when trying to describe their administrative style.

"The future of solar energy in the country will be in decentralized and off-grid solutions."

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after it achieved independence, was an admirer of the Soviet model of development; he believed that India would surge to prosperity by way of giant steel mills, factories, power plants, and hydroelectric dams. And while socialism may have passed out of fashion, Nehru’s successors have never questioned his basic premise: that for India—a big country with big problems—the bigger solutions are necessarily the better solutions. No one could ever accuse Narendra Modi of failing to think big. But India’s history suggests that thinking big has never been enough—and that while it’s very easy to spend a lot of money, it’s every bit as easy to waste it.

If India’s 400 million people living without power are to get their pukka houses and their 24-7 electricity, better to think small. Sunita Narain, who heads the Center for Science and Environment, a well-respected New Delhi think tank, says that while she welcomes Modi’s animated talk of renewables, she believes that he “does not appreciate the fact that the future of solar energy in the country will be in decentralized and off-grid solutions—smaller power plants that provide clean energy to millions.”

While he was still governor of Gujarat, Modi laid a foundation stone on an island for a “Statue of Unity” that would honor the Hindu nationalist Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of India’s founding fathers. At 597 feet, the statue, once completed, will be the tallest in the world—twice as high as the Statue of Liberty. “The taller the statue will be, the more India will be known on the global stage,” Modi said at the time. Last month, Adam Taylor, a sharp-eyed blogger for the Washington Post, spotted the line item for the Statue of Unity tucked away in Modi’s inaugural budget. The cost to Indian taxpayers? $34 million.

But not even the sharpest eyes would be able to find a line item for off-grid village solar plants, or—for that matter—small-scale biomass, or hydro or wind projects, or loan programs for those entrepreneurs eager to launch local renewable-energy businesses. If Narendra Modi wants to be seen as a truly visionary thinker, throwing $34 million at some of these things would be a great place to start.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exploration of Yellowstone. MORE STORIES ➔