What then are we to do?
One option is to curb demand by decoupling economic growth and
well-being from cheap energy. This could be done by reducing usage,
increasing efficiency and adding new technologies for energy storage and
transmission. But even the most optimistic projections of social change
and energy innovation cannot halt the short-term need for energy
development. For example, India seeks to generate 40% of its power from
renewables by 2030, and that cannot be achieved without massive new
solar and wind installations.
But we have an opportunity to get this right. In the forthcoming book Energy Sprawl Solutions,
my colleagues and I provide a roadmap for a renewable energy future
that preserves functional and connected ecosystems. Central to the
solution is to get ahead of the problem by sketching out ways to reduce
the damaging aspects of energy footprints and to compensate for it in
places where it’s inevitable.
For starters, we should try to steer development to occur in
already-converted areas, including agricultural lands, industrial areas
and former mine sites. To avoid the need for new transmission wires, new
wind and solar projects should make the most of existing transmission
capacity from nuclear, coal or gas power plants.
We’ll need to work with governments and energy companies to come up
with regional energy plans that avoid the most important natural lands.
Finally, we need to promote siting energy production as close as
possible to the places where it will be used—encouraging development on
the very rooftops of the industries and houses where it will be
consumed. By helping direct new development toward degraded lands or
rooftops, we can safeguard biodiversity, help address climate change and
actually speed up the development of renewable energy sources.
This is easier said than done, of course. India seeks to achieve
universal energy access by 2030, a goal that the World Resources
Institute estimates will require massively scaling up distributed
generation— modular systems that generate power close to where it is
used, including stand-alone systems as well as mini-grids. With funding
recently received from the MacArthur Foundation, we will work in
partnership with the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy
(CSTEP) to help India achieve its goals for renewable capacity and to
create an additional carbon sink of 2.5–3 billion tons of CO2 by
restoring ~10 million hectares of forest and rehabilitating another 10
million hectares by 2030.
Meeting these goals will also require planning and implementation
tools that facilitate development while avoiding impacts to forests.
It’s a tall order, but there is reason for optimism. In 2016, India
released its draft National Policy on Renewable Energy-based
Micro-grids, which will establish at least 10,000 renewable-based micro-
and mini-grid projects across the country. This will complement grid
access with decentralized, smaller-scale systems that supply electricity
directly to consumers.
To that end, we will adapt CSTEP’s computational and visualization
platform—Decision Analysis for Research and Planning (DARPAN)—that can
simulate and evaluate the economic impact of energy choices based on
decision-maker concerns. By incorporating a range of land values (e.g.,
biodiversity, ecosystem services, social values) we can help policy
makers identify locations where renewable energy can be advanced with
minimal impacts to forests and people. Hopefully this means more tiger
habitat and fewer people carrying firewood.
India is just one country, of course. But if we can get this right,
India can show the rest of the developing world how to achieve
comprehensive access to affordable energy without compromising on
environmental concerns. Given the great need, we can’t afford to get it