India’s general election is now over, and Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a historical landslide victory. The incumbent Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, won only a handful of seats, leaving Modi, who built his reputation as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, with a clear mandate.
As the Prime Minister of India, Modi faces a dismal energy scenario. Power outages are frequent in India, public utilities struggle to remain solvent, and, as of 2011, 400 million Indians remain without access to electricity at their home. Power sector reforms have been slow and insufficient to bridge the wide gap between electricity demand and supply due to artificially low prices especially for agriculture. At the same time, India’s huge population and potential for economic growth make the country’s energy decisions critical for the planet.
Modi is often praised for his achievements in improving the supply of electricity and scaling up solar power in Gujarat, the forerunner state in solar energy deployment. Moreover, Gujarat now offers 24×7 electricity to homes – a stunning achievement in the Indian context – though some commentators note that Gujarat had made major strides in the power sector already before Modi’s time began in 2001. Modi has also been criticized by environmentalists for his ambiguous and contradictory record on coal. While building solar power plants, Modi has also overseen widespread environmental destruction through coal power plant construction.
What can we expect? Given Modi’s decisive electoral victory, he does have an unusual opportunity to change energy policies in India. Since Modi believes in the centrality of industrial development for India’s future prospects, power sector reform is probably going to be one of his top priorities. Although the central government in India cannot alone push through higher electricity prices or end “free” (that is, paid by the general public) electricity to farmers, at the very least Modi can support state governments that are serious about improving the profitability of power generation by rationalizing electricity tariffs. Such a move could improve India’s power scenario, reduce wasteful use of electricity, and promote economic growth.
At the same time, Modi’s past history does offer promise on the solar front. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi advocated the argument that investment in solar creates industrial and commercial opportunities in the future, similar to China’s heavy investment in renewable energy. Solar power is hot commodity in India now due to favorable geographic conditions, problems in the power sector, and public opinion. While Modi may not invest in off-grid electricity generation for remote rural communities, his supporters probably want to see more large-scale solar power.
The greatest problem with Modi’s energy policy may become the lack of environmental safeguards. Rapid industrialization is a messy business, and Modi’s record in Gujarat does not suggest that he is too worried about the negative environmental effects of coal. Since solar power or other alternatives, such as nuclear power and natural gas, will not replace coal in India any time soon, power generation from coal would be almost inevitable in any scenario where power supply improves significantly. India’s environmentalists should push Modi to implement and enforce environmental regulations.