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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Clean-Tech Kitcheree
Sierra Club members kick in to help India innovate
By Carl Pope
July/August 2008

Carl PopeWHEN U.S. CORPORATE THINK TANKS are not counseling despair in the face of global warming (see "Ways & Means," May/June), they preach resentment: Why should we cut back our carbon dioxide emissions if India and China do not? True, should these enormous nations' development trajectories lead them to U.S.-style consumption and reliance on fossil fuels, we're cooked. But several weeks on the ground in India convinced me that it, at least, has the potential to far surpass the United States in clean energy.

That may appear unlikely, given that India lacks a real energy or climate-change policy. (The central government is said to have developed such a policy but has yet to unveil it.) V. S. Naipaul once described India as the land of a "million mutinies." It is also the land of a million energy pathways. This spring, for instance, even as the World Bank announced financial support for an enormous coal-fired power plant in the port city of Mundra, private companies electrified dozens of villages using combinations of photovoltaic cells and LED lightbulbs.

Advertisements in New Delhi newspapers reminded building owners that solar-heated hot water is now required by law. India already gets more of its electricity from wind than does the United States, and its Suzlon Energy is the world's fifth-largest wind turbine manufacturer. (Despite a recent U.S. order for an additional 200 megawatts' worth of wind turbines, Suzlon is not otherwise increasing its presence here because of our on-again, off-again tax and regulatory support for wind power.)

India, in fact, is well positioned to lead the world in green energy. For this it can thank, in part, its geological disadvantages: small amounts of oil and modest natural gas. It has large coal reserves, but they are riddled with contaminants. (The proposed Mundra plant would be powered by coal imported from Indonesia.) In a fossil-fueled world, India loses out, ending up competing with China for access to peak oil.

But India boasts the world's best fit of optimal solar-power-collection sites to population centers. It has large areas suitable for biomass--fast-growing plants that can be converted to energy--and enjoys reasonably good wind resources. India can also deploy enormous numbers of world-class engineers eager to plunge into renewables and efficiency. It has already created a leading renewable power company in Suzlon, and Indian giants like Reliance Infrastructure, Moser Baer, and the Tata Group are pouring billions of dollars into new energy technologies. (Later this year Tata may release a car powered by compressed air.) And India is considering a proposal to provide electricity to the country's 300,000 "off the grid" villages through the best combination of wind, sun, and biomass for each cluster of villages.

Amid this kitcheree (an Indian stew) of innovation, the one ingredient in short supply is connectedness. India is a vast country, with at least five alphabets, 23 official languages, and (until recently) very poor transportation and communications. Its grassroots movements tend to see government as an adversary rather than as a potential partner. Even within the government, innovative ideas developed in one district are often unknown a few hundred miles away.

And so, after 116 years of operating only in North America, the Sierra Club is extending its reach overseas. Our first effort will be to support a national Center for Green Livelihoods as a place where all those working toward a low-carbon India can meet, learn from, and collaborate with each other. To kick it off, the Sierra Club is establishing an annual Green Energy and Green Livelihoods Award (with a $100,000 prize raised from Indian American Club members) for the best grassroots effort to create green jobs.

These initiatives may seem like small contributions to the huge challenge of providing clean-energy services for hundreds of millions of people who now rely on cow dung and kerosene. But I'm convinced that India has all the ideas, passion, and determination it needs; what's missing is a venue to bring them together. Somewhere among its million energy pathways, India will find the answers necessary to become a world leader in the green energy future.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org. For more on the Club's India initiatives, visit sierraclub.org/india.


Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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