India's sunny 'saffron revolution'

In his visit to the US, India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, makes an impression on his plans for the poor, especially in expanding solar power. His record so far suggests India could be a global solar champion.

AP Photo
Solar panels are being installed atop India's Narmada irrigation canal near Ahmadabad, Gujarat, in 2012. The panels also help reduce evaporation of water.

On his first official trip to the United States this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi impressed President Obama with his plans to address “the needs of the poorest of the poor.” Two of the plans are pretty well known: more toilets and bank accounts for the poor. But a third has a reach-for-the-stars quality to it.

Mr. Modi wants to harness solar power to enable every home to run at least one light bulb by 2019. This may not seem like much. But some 300 million people in India – or nearly the population of the US – currently do not have electricity at all. Millions more have sporadic power. For them, solar is a way to leapfrog over conventional fossil-fuel power into a 21st-century clean-energy economy. (It would also reduce India’s hefty carbon footprint, which comes from relying on coal for 60 percent of its electricity.)

Modi sees solar power as one way to change tired concepts about “helping” the poor. If people can put solar panels around their homes or over empty spaces, such as irrigation canals, they can participate in their own uplift. “What we need is the model of development where people are not just beneficiaries. Rather they are made equal partners in the process of development,” he said in a 2011 speech as chief minister of Gujarat state.

India’s solar potential is huge, just as is its need to curb poverty. Of the world’s 20 top economies, it has the most sunlight, especially in a few vast deserts that are ideal for grid-connected photovoltaic projects. But it also is home to the world’s largest number of poor people, about 360 million of its 1.3 billion people.

Modi’s track record on solar is impressive. In Gujarat, he oversaw several major solar projects, including an impressive solar farm over agricultural irrigation canals that also help prevent water evaporation. Now he wants to bring this “saffron revolution,” he calls it, to all of India. He has asked members of Parliament to develop a model village in their districts that includes a solar project.

The timing is ripe as solar costs are nearing parity with coal, especially if costs for building transmission lines are counted. And his trip to the US included an agreement for American assistance on a number of energy fronts, especially financing of solar projects.

Modi plans to boost solar capacity more than 10-fold by 2022 from the current 1,700 megawatts. China, Africa, and other parts of the world are also racing toward solar. But India may have the potential and concept to be this century’s solar champion.

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