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Renewable Energy As Solution And Responsibility

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India's power sector has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately. Last month, technical problems in India's over-stretched electricity grid plunged half the country, some 600 million people, into darkness for up to two days, in the worst power outage in history.

Behind the stormy news reports, however, shines a brighter energy story. India's renewable energy sector, and its solar sector in particular, is experiencing tremendous growth. Far from being a decrepit laggard in renewable energy India is fast becoming a leading light, with technology that has the potential toreduce carbon emissions on a global scale.

Renewable energy already accounts for some 12% of India's total installed power capacity. If nuclear power and large scale hydroelectric is included into the mix, the percentage of India's electricity derived from carbon free sources rises to 33%. India also has one of the world's most ambitious plans for solar power: a $19 billion target of generating 20 GW by 2020.

The growth of India's clean energy sector does more than keep the lights on: It is a crucial ray of hope in the fight against climate change. The European Union's emissions have already peaked and are expected to fall significantly by 2050. The United States' emissions are also dropping off, dipping by 5% in the five years leading up to 2010. This fall is in part because of the recession but also because America is retiring aging coal plants and replacing them with cleaner alternatives.

However, all these emissions cuts from the developed world will be more than offset by the explosive growth in carbon emissions expected from developing countries, including India and China, over the coming decades. What developing countries choose, in particular whether they power their growth with coal or clean energy, will dictate whether or not humanity can avert a climate catastrophe.

Last weekend, I visited the Solar Energy Centre in Gurgaon, just outside of New Delhi. I was struck not only by the professionalism of the staff there, but also by their confidence in India's renewable energy potential, and their conviction that India will surpass its extremely ambitious 2020 solar power target.

I have always believed that development need not equate to carbon emissions. Just as developing countries leapfrogged fixed line telephones and went straight for mobile telephony in the 2000s, so we can bypass fossil fuels and build our energy infrastructure around clean power in the 2010s.

When I was President of the Maldives (see here for an update on the troubled politics of my country) my administration launched a carbon neutral strategy, which included fully financed plans to generate 80% of the country's electricity from solar power by 2020. This strategy was based upon the simple economic fact that while it costs between US $0.28 to $0.70 per kilowatt hour to produce electricity from diesel generators in our islands, it costs just$0.23 to produce the same amount of solar power.

The Maldives is not alone in its desire to play energy hopscotch, and to leapfrog fossil fuels. In the past few years, dozens of other small island and developing nations have also announced radical renewable energy or carbon neutral targets of their own.

Although India and China, for the moment, remain reliant on heavily polluting coal, there are reasons to be optimistic that they can continue to grow their economies while reigning in their carbon emissions. China is already a renewable energy superpower. It is the world's biggest producer of wind turbines and solar modules and is investing heavily in electric vehicles. India is not far behind in clean energy ambition.

A fewyears ago, there was a popular mantra in climate change circles about the need to transfer renewable energy technologies from the West to developing countries, to help poorer nations develop their renewable energy sectors. But over thecoming decade, the process is likely to run the other way, as the developing countries like India, with it's impressive Gurgaon facility, export their clean energy products and know-how to the rest of the world.

In the Maldives, we should forge a far closer relationship with India, particularly in the field of renewable energy, to help deliver our 80% solar target. Other neighbouring countries should also tap Indian expertise in developing their own clean energy plans.

Nobody wants to live in a world that has been wrecked by climate change, but no one wants to switch out the lights to save the planet either. By embracing clean technologies, developing countries like India can show us that a green world can also be a bright one.