India and Pakistan Cooperation to Fight Climate Change

Solar panels installed on a building in Islamabad Photo by Talha Azhar

Policy ideas, challenges and mistakes in climate-vulnerable Pakistan and India attempting to build solar energy capacity serve as a renewable energy lesson for the rest of the region.

Talha Azhar, a photographer in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, is happy that he will earn money from generating electricity after he installed solar power on his rooftop some months ago.

Across the border in New Delhi, India, the monthly electricity bill for IT professional Amit Bajaj dropped by two-thirds 14 months after he invested in a solar rooftop.

As elsewhere in the world, these cities are grappling with heat waves and rising energy demands. With the sun being the major renewable energy source in both countries, solar energy seems the most economical and obvious choice.

But installing solar energy on land requires a lot of space. A solar farm with a 1 MW installed capacity needs around five acres of land. A viable option is solar panels on rooftops, particularly in densely populated cities.

Amit Bajaj standing beneath his 6 kW solar rooftop system. Photo by Pallav Jain

Both governments are encouraging this option. But despite the money-saving and environmental benefits, uptake is slow, not just in the capitals with relatively higher per capita income, but also in other cities.

These countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change despite producing relatively low carbon emissions, says the Global Climate Risk Index. In 2021, Pakistan’s share of global emissions was 1% and India’s about 6.8%.

The Pakistan government has set a target to produce 60% of energy from renewable energy sources by the year 2030. By that year, India aims to obtain 50% of its installed electric power capacity from non-fossil fuels.

Over 80% of India’s 1.4 billion people live in districts at risk of climate-induced disasters, as do Pakistan’s nearly 240 million people, highlights the World Bank’s Climate Knowledge Portal.

They are among the nearly 200 countries to sign the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. At the United Nations’ climate summit in UAE last November, all signatories to the Paris Agreement agreed to triple their renewable energy production to at least 11,000 gigawatts by 2030. This will require adding clean energy at a faster clip, says the International Energy Agency. Despite low emissions, Pakistan could benefit from an audit mechanism for local industries, but industry owners resist, viewing it as a tax avoidance measure.

The share of non-fossil fuel sources in India’s electricity generation capacity reached about 44% by October 2023. But coal-fired power plants still meet around 50% of the country’s energy demand. Pakistan’s renewable energy accounts for 6.79% of the country’s installed capacity and 4.26% of its electricity generation, according to the Economic Survey of 2023-2024. Compare this to the power sector’s coal consumption, 68.9% from July-March FY 2024.

Data source: Islamabad electric supply company (IESCO) and Delhi solar policy 2024. Image by Pallav Jain

Islamabad, Pakistan  

Pakistan does not make it easy to install solar rooftops. The challenges range from the already high upfront cost, to space requirements, lack of awareness and technical expertise, bureaucracy, and regulations.

“When we installed solar systems in our home, there was no subsidy or an incentive policy… We bought the rooftop from a private company, so they managed all the formalities,” said Talha Azhar. Installing solar on your own, he added, is more costly and time-consuming.

Mohammed Awais instals solar energy systems in Gujranwala city. He says the rates fluctuate, depending on policies and demand. Pakistan’s deteriorating economic health has driven up interest rates, which makes it difficult to secure key parts needed to build and install solar rooftops. A solar plate currently costs around half a million Pakistani rupees (USD 3,200) for 550 watts. The inverter costs about PKR 350,000 (USD 1,200). These costs, exorbitant particularly due to the country’s currency devaluation, are expected to significantly reduce in this competitive sector.

The private power infrastructure board has tendered 85% of public sector buildings for solar energy, reports the Pakistan Ministry of Energy (power division) Yearbook, 2022-23. Total net metering has increased 108%, from 508 MW in 2021-22 to 1055 MW in 2022-23.

The private power infrastructure board aims to generate 6000 MW from solar energy and the first project in Muzaffargarh/Kot Addu has been tendered. Several wind and solar projects are expected to be completed over the next years, enabling renewable energy in Pakistan to cross 4% by the year 2025, and 30% by 2030, according to the yearbook.

Meanwhile, however, Pakistan is also investing in coal plants with foreign investment from China.

Delhi, India  

In India, Delhi’s state government announced a New Solar Policy 2024 in January 2024. It gives consumers installing solar rooftops a subsidy of INR10,000 (USD 119). All sectors residential, commercial or industrial, also get production-based incentive of up to INR 3/kWh. This is in addition to the 40% subsidy already provided by the central government for up to 3 kW  and a 20 percent subsidy for 4-10 kW.

The new solar policy mandates all government buildings with areas of 500 square metres or larger to  install solar panels in the next three years. It also promotes community-based solar systems – residents of multi-story buildings can jointly install rooftop solar and save money.

“But not all the families in the building are ready for this,” said retired teacher Omprakash Raikwar and his wife, pensioners who live on the second floor of a five-story building in Delhi’s Badarpur area.

Residential buildings pushing solar panels on a community level. Photo by Pallav Jain

In its 2016 policy, Delhi’s state government had set a target of achieving 1000 MW of electricity from solar rooftops by the year 2020. However, it met only 230 MW of this target by the end of 2023. 

The state government’s welfare scheme gives 200 units of electricity in Delhi free in the electricity bill – two out of five families in this building say their monthly expenditure is already low. They say it will take longer for them to recover the cost of installing solar energy.

Even after the free 200 units, the price of electricity is higher in areas around Delhi.In Faridabad, Haryana, after using 250 units of electricity, consumers pay INR 6.5 per unit. The cost in Delhi is only INR 4.5 per unit.

Economics, rather than the environment, become the deciding factor.

Delhi has several private ‘Discoms’ or distribution companies that are responsible for distributing electricity to consumers. The companies buy electricity from producers and then sell it to consumers. This makes net metering more time consuming compared to other cities, says Nishi Chandra, marketing head of Loom Solar, a manufacturer of solar panels and lithium batteries based in Faridabad, Haryana.

Delhi due to government subsidies, so the demand for domestic rooftop solar installation is also less,” Chandra told Sapan News.

The higher upfront cost for domestic consumers, delayed disbursement of rooftop solar subsidies, and the Discoms’ loss of revenue with the rise of solar consumers in the city are the main hurdles in popularising solar power, says Binit Das, deputy program manager renewable energy at the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based public interest research organisation.

But the high pollution levels and energy surge in Delhi makes this investment all the more relevant, says Amit Bajaj.

“When you invest in solar, you tend to keep an eye on any wastage parallelism, because you always want to make the best of what you have invested and believed in,” he told Sapan News.

 Way forward

The high cost of living in capitals like Islamabad and Delhi and the rising summer temperatures due to climate change is increasing energy expenditures.

“Who said that renewable energy has to be in the form of big power plants like an elephant?” asks India’s ‘Solar Man’ Prof. Chetan Solanki, talking to Sapan News.

“The beauty of solar and wind energy is that it is like a deer, it can be produced locally in a village, at home, in a field, anywhere. If every person starts generating his own electricity then we will not need big infrastructure,” said Solanki, founder of Energy Swaraj Foundation, a Mumbai-based non-profit. “This will also save the country’s money.”

Rooftop solar installation on a warehouse in Delhi, India. Photo by Pallav Jain

Multipronged methods needed to increase the transition to solar and wind power include increasing awareness about the savings and environmental benefits of solar rooftops, besides constructing more energy-efficient buildings and appliances. Incentives can include lower rates for solar electricity compared to coal-based energy, and subsidies for people who transition to renewable energy.

Other options include ‘digital solar’, being advertised as 43% cheaper than solar energy, providing solar energy ‘credits’ for consumers, who don’t even need to install solar panels.

Delhi-based government official Shrikant Deshmukh who works with the Power Department told Sapan News that the government is prioritising energy conservation along with the increase in energy production capacity. It is running an energy literacy campaign and has started energy audits for offices.

Power source mix installed capacity chart. Image by Pallav Jain

Engineer Asad Mehmood, a private consultant and expert on climate and energy in Pakistan says the country can’t reach its target without reducing subsidies to on-grid consumers, and providing incentives to those installing solar systems.

The bottom line is that political will and citizen participation are essential to fulfil each country’s global commitments. The pace needs to pick up in order to reach these goals.

Faheem Akhtar is freelance journalist based in Gilgit, Pakistan, and covers environment and health. Pallav Jain is an environmental journalist based in Madhya Pradesh, India, He covers environment and health issues from a rural perspective. This story was part of a cross-border reporting workshop organised by the U.S.-based East-West Center.