Lights On briefing: India sails to Antarctica, broken solar dreams and more

Key headlines this week

Lights On briefing: India sails to Antarctica, broken solar dreams and more

Happy new year and welcome back to the first Lights On news brief of 2021, with key headlines on energy and climate change in South Asia.

A big thank you to the many new readers who have joined after this newsletter was recommended by Rohan Venkat in his Political Fix. It’s truly exciting to see the community grow and I am looking forward to expanding my coverage with fresh ideas and new collaborations in the coming months.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A boost to regional cooperation

India is taking steps to boost energy cooperation across South Asia as a way to strengthen energy security in the region and counteract China’s dominance. The government has set up a dedicated team, the South Asia Group for Energy (SAGE) which will work under the former Union power secretary Ram Vinay Shahi. According to documents seen by the Mint,

“SAGE will have the role of promoting, initiating and facilitating effective policy dialogue and capacity building on bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis for energy and related issues.”

The group is expected to deal with issues such as cross-border electricity trade, setting up liquefied natural gas terminals, building hydropower capacity but also furthering regional grid expansion under the One Sun, One World, One Grid plan envisioned by PM Modi.

Respite for polluters

The power ministry is continuing its lobbying effort to defer the enforcement of anti pollution regulations. If this story rings a bell, it’s because it’s not new. The ministry has been arguing for a long time that upgrading polluting thermal power plants is too expensive and would lead to high energy prices. The required Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) technology would cut toxic sulphur dioxide emissions, of which India is the world’s largest emitter with 15 percent of the global total, according to Greenpeace.

While the ministry had tried to push a two years extension on an already deferred 2022 deadline, the new proposal doesn’t even have a set date. The case is currently with the Supreme Court.

India sails to Antarctica

India’s 40th scientific expedition to Antarctica is now underway, after delays due the coronavirus crisis. The ship sets off today from Goa with a crew of 43, and is due to reach its destination in 30 days. Due to last year’s challenges, the mission will support existing projects rather than working on new initiatives, the government explained. The team will focus on climate change, geology, ocean observations, electric and magnetic flux measurements and environmental monitoring.

Goodbye Ladakh’s mega solar

The plan for a 7.5GW solar plant in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir has been scrapped for good. The termination has been announced by the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), which had issued the original tender in 2018 and extended it multiple times due to a lack of responses. This news will surprise no one in India - experts had already pointed out how the plan was going to be prohibitively expensive and a logistical nightmare. I wrote about the plan and its thorny geopolitical implications last September.

Is Coal India ditching coal?

The state-run coal giant will be investing the equivalent of $13.7 billion in an ambitious diversification plan that speaks volumes about the future of coal in India and beyond. Three new subsidiaries will be in charge of delivering a solar wafer manufacturing facility to cut Chinese imports, and two aluminium manufacturing units, sources told the Hindustan Times.

While Coal India will keep investing in coal, “only PSUs [public sector undertakings] can lead the way to scale up integrated solar manufacturing,” says Rishabh Jain, market intelligence specialist with the Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), who authored a report on solar manufacturing back in September. “This can be a game changer if it actually materialises.”

Fines against air pollution

The new Commission for Air Quality Management launched last October is at work to catch and punish polluters. It carried out surprise checks at more than 3,000 construction sites in the Delhi area, and found that 386 sites were breaching waste management and dust control rules. The violators were fined a total of $217,000, an amount that raises questions on whether such penalties can really fix the problem. “A mere fine cannot be a deterrent, we need to improve systems of accountability and incentives not to pollute,” says Sanjay Upadhyay, the founder of India’s first environmental law agency, Enviro Legal Defence Firm.


The textile industry goes solar

An increasing number of Bangladeshi clothing factories are installing rooftop panels to power their operation with cheap solar energy. The country is the second largest apparel exporter in the world, so how it manages its textile industry matters to its climate footprint. After the introduction of net metering rules, more than 500 facilities (out of about 4,000) have taken steps to make their operations more environmentally friendly, including installing solar PV. Garment manufacturers are hoping for more support from the government to maintain momentum and increase installations.


Freezing winter worsens gas crisis

A chronic gas shortage in Pakistan is reaching new lows with a cold spell that has led to a reduction in gas pressure and the suspension of gas supply in some residential areas, affecting homes and commercial activities down to small teahouses. Industrialists are also worried and have raised the issue with the president Arif Alvi, saying that many factories had to close due to the mismanagement of the problem. Industry leaders have also warned that the shortage will not only affect exports but also local markets - the government is yet to provide a detailed explanation of what caused the issue and a roadmap to solve it.

On Twitter this week

We ended 2020 with the news that India's power demand cross 180 GW for the first time. Unusually, this occurred in December, when power demand usually peaks is in summer?

What is going on here? Is it sign of the economic recovery?

Short thread.January 4, 2021

Research and further readings

  • Study: Mapping the global threat of land subsidence - Within the next 20 years, 19 percent of the world’s population will be affected by the loss of habitable land due to subsidence, according to a new study published in Science. Ground surface sinks due to a range of reasons natural and human made, such as groundwater removal. The majority of the 635 million people who are currently exposed to subsidence live in Asia, with assets worth $9.78 trillion also exposed to the risk in the region.
  • Analysis: India crafts Arctic policy in battle for resources - India is joining the Arctic race with an upcoming policy that will regulate efforts to secure a slice of the melting, resource rich polar circle. With climate change thinning the ice caps, new transport routes and business opportunities in the oil and gas sector are opening up. While until now India had been mostly engaged in polar research, the new policy hopes to engage in ‘responsible business’ and create synergies between Himalayan and Arctic knowledge and culture.
  • Analysis: Importance of Tibet’s rivers for Asian water security - While India is preoccupied with China’s plans to build a mega dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, also known as Brahmaputra, it’s easy to forget that what happens in Tibet, the water tower of Asia, has consequences for a number of other downstream countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, to which it provides a steady source of drinking water, energy and food. This long read explores the ‘triple role’ of the Tibetan Plateau - Asia’s main freshwater repository, its largest water supplier, and its principal rainmaker. The water security of all of the eastern part of Asia, the author argues, depends on Tibet’s rivers.

That’s all for today! If you like what you read, please consider sharing this news roundup with a friend or two!