CHOWKIPUR, INDIA: Dusk descends on a village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar as residents start their evening chores. Women walk in a line, balancing packets of animal fodder on their heads.
Others lead their water buffalo home before dinner.
Overhead loom bare utility poles – built but never wired for electricity – casting long shadows across the landscape.
Of the world’s 1.3 billion people who live without access to power, a quarter – about 300 million – live in rural India in states such as Bihar. Nighttime satellite images of the sprawling subcontinent show the story: Vast swaths of the country still lie in darkness.
India, the third-largest emitter of greenhouses gases after China and the United States, has taken steps to address climate change in advance of the global talks in Paris this year – pledging a steep increase in renewable energy by 2030.
But India’s leaders say that the huge challenge of extending electric service to its citizens means a hard reality – that the country must continue to increase its fossil fuel consumption, at least in the near term, on a path that could mean a threefold increase in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, according to some estimates.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked climate change with President Obama in September at the United Nations, he was careful to note that he and Obama share “an uncompromising commitment on climate change without affecting our ability to meet the development aspirations of humanity.”
Here in this little village, a single solar light bulb gleams.
It belongs to the family of Satish Paswan, 35, a farmer who sold a bit of his family’s land to purchase a solar panel and light a few months back for about $88. He wanted his five children to be able to do their homework.
“We feel very ashamed and bad that other neighboring villages are enjoying power facility and we don’t have it,” Paswan said.
“Whenever a small leader or a big leader belonging to the ruling party comes here, they promise their first priority is to provide electricity to the villages. But they have never fulfilled that promise.”
Fossil fuel generation of electricity is the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. Yet demand for inexpensive power will rise in a great tide in the decades to come, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the two regions of the globe with the least access to electricity. All the countries of Africa, taken together, have twice as many people without electricity as India does – 622 million. No country is content with that.
“It’s a matter of shame that 68 years after independence we have not been able to provide a basic amenity like electricity,” Piyush Goyal, India’s minister of state for power, coal and new and renewable energy, said recently.
The Indian government has launched an ambitious project to supply 24-hour power to its towns and villages by 2022 – with plans for miles of new feeder lines, infrastructure upgrades and solar microgrids for the remotest areas.
If India’s carbon emissions continue to rise, by 2040 it will overtake the United States as the world’s second-highest emitter, behind only China, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency.
Yet the Indian government has long argued that the United States and other industrialized nations bear a greater responsibility for the cumulative damage to the environment from carbon emissions than developing nations – with Modi urging “climate justice” and chiding Western nations to change their wasteful ways.
Total carbon dioxide emissions for India were 1.7 tons per capita in 2012, the most recent complete data available, compared with 6.9 tons for China and 16.3 tons for the United States, according to the World Resources Institute. Officials say they are keenly aware of India’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, drought, flooding and food security.
Yet the government says it must depend on fossil fuels to bring an estimated 30 percent of the population out of extreme poverty.
“We cannot abandon coal,” said Jairam Ramesh, the former environment minister and climate negotiator, and author of the book “Green Signals: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India.” “It would be suicidal on our part to give up on coal for the next 15 to 20 years, at least, given the need.”
Although 300 million Indians have no access to power, millions more in the country of 1.2 billion people live with spotty supplies of electricity from the country’s unreliable power grid. The grid failed spectacularly in 2012, plunging more than 600 million people into total blackout.
In the country’s high-tech capital of Bangalore, for example, residents have recently had to endure hours of power outages each day after repairs and a bad monsoon season prevented the state’s hydroelectric and wind power plants from generating enough electricity.
Many of the giant IT companies have their own generating systems – Infosys, for example, is building its own solar park – but small businesses and residents in rural and urban areas are suffering, said Harish Hande, the chairman of Selco-India, a social enterprise that provides solar power in Karnataka.
“How do we manage our supply and make sure we put money aside for infrastructure? If you look at the future, it’s what we need,” he said, “but there’s not a single thing that’s moving ahead.”
Estimates show that India’s power woes cost the economy anywhere from 1 to 3 percent of gross domestic product – an impediment to Modi’s hopes to expand the economy and make the country more hospitable to manufacturing, according to Rahul Tongia, a fellow with Brookings India. Electricity demand will increase sevenfold by mid-century as the population continues to grow, experts say.
Energy access is worse in rural areas. Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has a population of 103 million, nearly a third the size of the United States. Fewer have electricity as the primary source of lighting there than in any other place in India, just over 16 percent, according to 2011 census data. Families still light their homes with kerosene lamps and cook on clay stoves with cow-dung patties or kindling.
In Bagwan village, students at the local middle school swelter in concrete classrooms without fans. A diesel generator rattles and spews black smoke outside the offices of the Union Bank of India.
“Electricity touches each and every sector of life,” said Rajesh Kumar Singh, a farmer who is the village sarpanch, akin to a mayor. “I can’t see TV properly. I can purchase an air conditioner, but I can’t run an air conditioner. Every piece of equipment that runs by electricity we can’t have. So life is not good for us. We are just surviving.”
Singh, 44, lives with his large extended family in a spacious home around an open-air courtyard where most of the cooking is done in a clay oven fueled by cow dung. He shows off his small refrigerator, which cannot be used to store food for any length of time because of the uneven electricity supply.
“I have a refrigerator, but it’s just sitting there. It’s just a showpiece,” he said, and sighed. “We are cursed to live in Bihar.”
In Bihar, the average per-capita electricity consumption is 203 kilowatt hours per person per year, compared with about 1,000 kilowatt hours for India as a whole, about 4,000 for China and about 12,000 for the United States, according to estimates from the World Bank and India’s Central Electricity Authority.
Pratyaya Amrit, the secretary of the energy department for Bihar, said that the state is about seven to 10 years behind the rest of the country, a fact that is not lost on his constituents. His office is trying to link the last remaining 2,000 villages with power and improve conditions for 40 percent of the rest that have bad infrastructure.
“They will ask you: ‘My village. By when? Please get it done,’ ” Amrit said.
The state’s power-generating capacity is expected to increase in the next few years as work is completed on two new coal-fired power plants, among hundreds of such plants planned throughout India.
Most of the country’s power-generating capacity still comes from about 125 coal-fired power plants, but the government has mandated that plants constructed after 2017 be built with more efficient “super critical” technology. As many as 140 coal-fired plants are planned or in the pipeline, according to Arunabha Ghosh, the chief executive of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in New Delhi.
Led by Modi, an early proponent of solar technology, India is in the midst of a huge drive to expand its solar and wind capacity, with plans for dozens of mega-parks that the government hopes will move the country closer to its goal of 100 gigawatts of solar-generating capacity by 2022, plus 75 gigawatts of other renewable energy, predominantly wind. The government wants to expand its hydroelectric and nuclear power capacity, as well.
The ambitious goal – which some think is unrealistic – would essentially require the country to double its installed solar-generating capacity every 18 months from its current capacity of four gigawatts, according to the CEEW estimate.
India also wants to double its coal production in the next five years, to more than 1 billion tons annually, with plans to open 60 more coal mines. India has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves, and officials say cheap, plentiful coal will make up the lion’s share of the country’s energy budget well beyond 2030.
“India could be consuming as much as 1.8 billion to 3 billion tons of coal annually by 2050,” Ghosh said, noting that this is a “business as usual” calculation and does not factor in India’s new push for renewable energy. “This is still lower than the amount of coal that was burnt in China on an annual basis in the last four to five years.”
At the same time, the Indian government says it wants to develop its economy using green technology, setting up 100 smart cities and touting its work with energy efficiency in industrial buildings and making LED light bulbs affordable.
“Two-thirds of our buildings have yet to be built, and half of the roads and infrastructure have yet to be created,” said Samir Saran, a senior fellow and vice president at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “There’s an opportunity to build at least some of them right for the first time – if we can create the right financial ecosystem.”
In recent months, the Indian government has announced plans to modernize its national grid and is preparing to address the financial woes of the country’s state-owned utility companies, some of which are mired in debt, to the tune of $66 billion. The rescue plan is likely to include power tariff hikes – a politically unpopular concept in a country where many residents are used to heavily subsidized power.
In 2010, according to a World Bank estimate, 87 percent of all electricity consumed by domestic customers was subsidized.
In Bihar, 30 percent of power is lost to transmission and distribution as well as theft, Amrit said, although independent analysts say the number may be higher.
Dark comes quickly in Chowkipur village, a small community about two hours from Bihar’s capital of Patna. Parents pull out kerosene lanterns as soon as the sun goes down so their children can study. The young men gather in the grass to play a board game called Ludo, lighting the board with their mobile phones, which they charge for 5 rupees per hour – about 8 cents – in town.
At the home of Rada Krishna Paswan, a 26-year-old bricklayer, his wife and other members of his extended family cooked pumpkin for dinner over a fire as nephew Pran Kumar, 6, tried to read his Hindi homework under a dim, battery-powered light.
The 100 or so families of the village took to the streets in August to protest the lack of power, Paswan said. Villagers blocked the main road for hours, chanting, “No power, no vote!” They were chiefly concerned about 70 students from their village and a neighboring community who failed to pass their Class 10 exams – it is difficult for them to study without light, he said.
“You see with your own eyes how we are suffering,” Paswan said. “There is a sense of urgency now. We need power. This is the moment. This is the time.”