There it is, a literal hellscape, complete with infernal fires that burn 24/7. But, in Korba, coal is life. Most people I talked to accepted that the coal economy powers their livelihoods, but it is slowly killing them.
Here's a community next door to a coal plant. They wake every morning to homes coated in a fresh layer of ash from the smoke that the plant belches. Korba is one of the most critically polluted places on the planet.
And it’s not just coal country that’s hurting, all of India has a deadly addiction to fossil fuels. India’s home to 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted places on the planet. In Delhi, the capital, residents lose 9.4 years off their life expectancy on average.
In 2020, the skies briefly cleared during the coronavirus lockdown, as cars stayed off the roads, factories shuttered and power plants ramped down. But the economic dislocation has put 400 million Indians at risk of falling deeper into poverty.
India should not have to sacrifice development for breathable air. There is a better way. For India has a historic opportunity to industrialize using clean energy. That opportunity is why I moved halfway around the world from the US to India to join ReNew Power, India's largest renewable energy company, as CTO.
After two years of crisscrossing the country, I've seen green shoots everywhere, of a budding clean energy boom, daring me to hope that India can pull off the world's most important energy transition.
Its choices will make or break the world's fight against climate change, for if India chooses fossil fuels to power its growing economy, its carbon emissions could explode, making it the world's number one emitter later this century.
Still, for most Indians fossil fuels are a luxury. Most live in rural areas, and wood, cow dung and bioenergy sources account for two-thirds of household energy use. Just six percent of Indians own cars, and two percent have air conditioning.
Indians will need far more energy to escape poverty and live modern, dignified lifestyles. By 2050 most will live in cities, and they’ll want to drive to work and cool their homes. Along the way, India will become the world’s most populous country, home to 1.6 billion people by mid-century.
Its economy could multiply tenfold; its energy needs could quadruple. Today, coal, oil and gas supply three-quarters of India’s energy, producing electricity, fueling vehicles and powering India’s factories.
If, by 2050, India still gets the same proportion from fossil fuels, it'll be a disaster for everyone, not least local populations, vulnerable to pollution, climate change or rapacious new coal mining.
Instead, India can make renewable energy the beating heart of a reimagined economy by achieving three audacious goals all at the same time. It's a route no country in history has ever taken, but it is possible, and this moment demands it.
First, India will need to build solar and wind power at an unprecedented scale and speed, replacing coal-fired power plants. Second, India will need to extend the reach of that renewable energy to power sectors of the economy like industry and transportation that haven't traditionally used electricity.
And third, India must become radically more energy-efficient. Here's my plan to achieve all three goals. First, India must build thousands of gigawatts of solar and wind power. To put this in context, it will be more than enough renewable energy to power all of America.
Fortunately, India is blessed with abundant sunshine. In theory, you could supply all of its energy needs by tapping the sunlight that shines on less than 10 percent of India's wastelands. India also has substantial untapped wind potential on land and offshore.
Wind and solar complement each other because the wind often blows harder when it's less sunny, like during the monsoon rains. Here's some even more exciting news: Wind and solar power are now cheaper than coal power, and it costs less to build a solar farm in India than anywhere else in the world.
Batteries have also become dramatically cheaper, making it possible to store and deliver energy on demand. Thanks to falling costs, renewable energy has risen rapidly, but it will need to grow even more explosively through mid-century.
This is the critical decade to invest in solar and wind power and avoid locking in new, long-lived coal power plants. India must also urgently expand its grid to deliver power for massive solar and wind plants in the sun-soaked deserts of Rajasthan or the windy coast of Gujarat, to energy-hungry cities like Mumbai.
Not all renewables should be built at massive scale. Distributed solar, on the rooftops of warehouses or the outskirts of sprawling cities, can produce power close to where it's needed. Now, to be sure, nuclear and hydropower will be essential to energy transitions around the world.
But India simply lacks the state capacity needed to build complex pricey projects at a breakneck pace, and all that push to build renewable wind and solar power best plays to India's strengths. The second audacious goal is to use renewable energy across the economy, including in sectors like industry and transportation that don't use electricity today.
As rising renewable energy makes the power grid cleaner, India should make all of its trains run on electricity and move more heavy freight from heavy trucks to rail. India's road vehicle fleet can also go electric.
Now, to be clear, we're mostly not talking about these electric vehicles, but these. Two- and three-wheelers make up more than 80 percent of India's vehicle fleet. To accelerate the adoption of electric scooters and rickshaws, India should build out charging stations and beef up local power grids to handle the influx of electricity demand.
Still, electrification won't work everywhere. It may not be possible to use electricity to power some heavy industrial processes in the fast-growing steel, cement, fertilizer and petrochemical sectors.
Plants may need to add equipment to capture carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Another solution could be clean hydrogen. Surplus renewable electricity can run machines called electrolyzers that can split water into oxygen and green hydrogen fuel.
That hydrogen can then power applications in transportation and industry, such as making steel or chemicals. Hydrogen can also act as a sort of battery, storing surplus wind and solar power to be used later.
Finally, the third goal is to radically improve energy efficiency. If there's any country in the world where efficiency is all-important, it's India. Even if India builds a massive supply of renewable energy and extends the reach of that energy by stitching together its economy, it won't be enough without energy efficiency.
Because if India's voracious demand for energy rises too quickly, it'll have to fill the gap with polluting fossil fuels. Here's a crazy statistic: Just to power the insane demand for air conditioning, India will need to add 70 percent of the power system capacity of all of Europe today.
And because much of India is hot and humid, air conditioning demand will peak during sweaty nights, making it tough for solar to power ACs. But far more efficient air conditioners could make it possible to power the aspirations of a rising middle class with renewable energy.
India's big advantage is that it's largely a clean slate. An incredible 70 percent of India's infrastructure in 2030 hasn't been built yet. That presents a huge opportunity to enact stringent efficiency standards and design energy-efficient buildings and cities.
Still, there are warning signs that India's energy transition could sputter out. COVID-19 sharply slowed the building of new renewable energy plants. Even larger challenges loom. First, India's electricity distribution utilities are mismanaged, economically fragile and forced by many states to subsidize power to farmers and residential customers.
India needs reforms to more efficiently combat energy poverty while overhauling unprofitable utilities so they can pay for clean energy on time. Doing so will make it possible to raise trillions of dollars at home and abroad to finance India's clean energy transition.
Second, that transition will stall without new and improved technologies. Here's an economic opportunity for India to cultivate advanced clean energy industries. In the future, India should manufacture and export energy-efficient air conditioners, electric two- and three-wheelers and equipment to produce and use hydrogen.
India's already strong in wind power manufacturing, and it could become a global leader in digital energy technologies. The international community can help here by funding innovation to make India's energy transition faster and more affordable.
Countries like the United States should help fund public procurement of advanced air conditioners and partner to build projects on the ground in India that demonstrate critical technologies, such as long-duration energy storage and carbon capture.
Finally, coal isn't going away without a fight. It's big business in India. Near Korba, India's coal capital, private companies are pushing ahead to expand coal mining, even deforesting an elephant preserve to dig out the coal underneath.
I witnessed the destruction firsthand. But for every Korba there is a Kutch. In this wind-swept region of Gujarat, I gaped as construction crews hoisted 70-ton nacelles atop towers taller than a football field is long.
The wind turbine blades are manufactured in India, and the electricity they'll go on to generate will help power economic growth. Renewable energy offers India a cleaner and more prosperous future than coal ever can.
Unless we hasten the transition, air pollution and climate change will continue to ravage the country and endanger the planet. So, let’s get to work.