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Historic carbon reductions for India as renewables bite

Emissions of carbon dioxide in India have fallen for the first time in 40 years amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to analysis published by the environmental website Carbon Brief in mid-May. 

But researchers found that the virus is not solely to blame for the reduction, as competition from renewables and falling electricity use had already weakened the country’s fossil fuel demand over the preceding 12 months. 

Daily data from India’s national grid showed that coal-fired generation fell by 15% during the month of March and by 31% in the first three weeks of April. At the same time, renewable energy generation grew by 6.4% in March, though it recorded a slight downward turn of 1.4% the following month. 

The drop-off in energy demand observed in March as a result of the coronavirus was enough to drive thermal power generation growth below zero for the first time in three decades. Meanwhile, oil consumption was also flatlining – leading to an overall emissions reduction of 1% for the fiscal year ending March 2020. 

Costs are the key reason that coal-fired power was in decline before the onset of COVID-19 and explain why it has borne the brunt of falling demand during the crisis, says Carbon Brief. Renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, have much lower operating costs than coal plants and therefore receive priority access to grids. 

Oil consumption in India had also been decelerating since the start of last year, though this trend has now been exacerbated by virus-linked demand reductions from the transport sector. At the start of the country’s national lockdown, which began in late March, oil consumption had already fallen around 18% year-on-year. 

With the correct level of ambition, investment and policy support, the current crisis has the potential to accelerate the energy transition in the country of 1.4bn people. Recent analysis by the International Energy Agency shows that in 2018, India’s investment in solar PV was greater than that invested in all fossil fuel sources of electricity together. This level of support has largely been driven by the fact that solar power is cheaper than coal. 

According to Carbon Brief, an auction held during the lockdown period secured 2 GW of new solar capacity at an average of 2.55 rupees/kWh. An average cost of a unit of electricity from the country’s largest coal generator was 3.4 rupees/kWh in the financial year 2018–2019. 

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