India Coal Mining Behemoth Nibbles At Solar

The tell-your-friends-about-it renewable energy story of the week is the one about how, as Think Progress put it, “The World’s Biggest Coal Company Is Turning to Solar Energy To Lower Its Utility Bill.”

The incongruity – some might even call it an irony – is too delicious for any good green to resist gobbling up. And Coal India’s statement as to why it is looking to develop a scalable 2 megawatt solar power plant? That was the cherry on top of the tasty sundae.

coal india solar

Coal mine in Dhanbad, India (image via )

“India has an abundance of sunshine and the trend of depletion of fossil fuels is compelling energy planners to examine the feasibility of using renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, and so on,” Coal India said in a bid document, according to dna, the English-language Indian news source that broke the story.

Well there you go. Game, set and match to renewables.

Except – and we suspect you know this – not really. Whether you call this a hopeful sign or some weird PR gambit by Coal India, the fact is India has a long, long way to go in kicking the coal habit.

coal india solar

image via U.S. Energy Information Administration

India, according to the industry group the World Coal Association, generates around 69 percent of its electricity by burning coal, some 90 percent of which is mined by Coal India. And with just a slight dip in 2009, consumption and production and consumption have been steadily rising, up by more than half in the past 10 years.

Still, it hasn’t been nearly enough to power the country, unable to meet demand now, even with much off the country not even hooked up to the grid.

Thus, solar. As Think Progress pointed out – and as Coal India alluded to – India has a tremendous solar resource.

India’s National Solar Mission has set a goal of 20 gigawatts of solar generation by 2022. It was at 1,688 megawatts (1.688 GW) as of the end of March after making some good progress in the last few years, according to the WorldWatch Institute, but keeping the ball rolling will be a challenge. And one thing that might hurt India is its domestic content restrictions for solar.

Just this week the leading U.S. solar industry group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, joined in a letter to President Obama protesting India trade policies.

“The (government of India) recently demanded that as much as 100 percent of its market for certain information technology and clean energy equipment must be satisfied by firms based domestically,” the letter said.

Back in February, the U.S. lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization on India’s solar program. Some U.S. environmental groups have called for the U.S. to back off on opening the Indian market, apparently thinking that India needs to develop a domestic solar manufacturing industry in order to deploy solar, which is of course absurd (as absurd for India as it is for the United States).

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.