Panel on "Light of Asia: The Future of Energy"
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Thank you, Samir, for that introduction, and for allowing me to open for a panel of such high caliber and global expertise.
It’s appropriate that our panelists span organizations and interests from around the world – Europe, Asia, North America – because expanding energy access is truly a global challenge.
Almost one in five people on our planet – 18 percent of the world’s population, equivalent to all of the people in India – live every day without reliable access to energy. Shops close when the sun goes down. Parents burn wood and coal to cook food and heat homes. Children do their homework by the dim light of candles and kerosene lamps. Collecting fuel, fetching water, and cleaning clothes – these are tasks that take very little of our time, if any, thanks to powered appliances. Yet in areas without electricity, these simple yet necessary chores take away countless hours – mostly from women – hours, that could be used far more productively.
Progress is happening: between 2010 and 2012, 220 million people – many of them in India’s cities – gained access to electricity. However, 500 million people in South Asia, including 300 million in India, still live without power.
As we all know, getting electricity is hardest for people in rural areas. Too many villages remain disconnected from the power plants that light the larger towns and cities. Extending the grid to these areas can be both a technical and financial challenge: the terrain is often formidable – just look at Nepal – and the costs are prohibitive.
Not long ago, the same challenges applied to other sectors, whether communications and financial services – it was just too expensive to build landlines and bank branches that could serve the rural poor. In fact, it still is, but the proliferation of mobile phones and other technologies, and especially new business models, have made it unnecessary.
And that’s where we should focus our gaze a bit. New technologies, and new uses of existing technology, have the potential to similarly leapfrog expensive power plants and transmission lines. Solar panels and batteries can collect and store the energy needed to power small health clinics and irrigation pumps, and basic appliances like refrigerators, electric stoves, and washing machines. And it’s important to recognize that expanding energy access isn’t just about creating new technologies, it’s also about adopting new business models that help supply reach demand as efficiently as possible.
Access to clean, reliable electricity can make people healthier and more productive, providing a boost to incomes and, consequently, consumption. The benefits would be especially large for Indian women, who spend, on average, six hours per day on unpaid work, compared to less than one hour for men.
And renewable energy won’t just save people time, it will also save our planet. The math here is pretty simple. 7 billion people on earth now, 9 billion by 2050. Much of that growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia; India will become the world’s most populous country by 2025, and its economy is projected to quintuple by 2040. Over the same period, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world will enter the middle class, consume more products and services and, consequently, consume more energy.
If that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, then the world we leave behind will be one where our great coastal cities are abandoned and hundreds of millions of climate refugees are forced inland.
But if renewables can meet the inevitable increase in energy demand, then the future looks far less foreboding. India has clearly recognized this reality, setting one of the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world: 175 gigawatts of capacity by 2022.
And this week’s budget announced a commitment to electrify all villages by 2018. We’re also working together in creative ways, including an innovative approach to public-private clean energy financing, to help India reach its renewable energy target.
Our hope is that all that new capacity will power not just homes, schools, and hospitals, but also stores, offices, and factories. Because to realize its demographic dividend in countries like India, you need to create about one million new jobs every month for the next ten years. And we realize these businesses cannot rely on intermittent sources of power.
There are other low-carbon or clean base-load options, such as natural gas and nuclear. In 2015, India was the world’s fifth largest importer of liquefied natural gas, and four new regasification terminals are either planned or under construction, adding to the four currently in operation
Another arrow in the quiver is greater energy efficiency, where the U.S. and India have already partnered to develop super-efficient appliance standards. The numbers behind the need for greater efficiency are staggering: over the next 15 to 20 years, in India alone, peak electricity demand from the top 10 most energy-consuming appliances and equipment could exceed 300 gigawatts, equal to the output of 600 large power plants. Energy efficiency is also critical to the success of off-grid systems – it means newer appliances can be powered in greater numbers using existing systems.
Finally, regional transmission networks can help deliver consistent and clean energy supplies by allowing countries to share electricity, making energy that comes from the sun, wind, and water more dependable. The possibilities for clean energy in South Asia are tremendous: Nepal and Bhutan have an estimated 100,000 megawatts of hydropower potential, while the recent demarcation of the Bay of Bengal has enabled Bangladesh, Burma, and India to start exploring for offshore gas deposits.
The U.S. government has long been committed to developing a regional energy market in South Asia, and the State Department has led this effort through two signature initiatives, including our Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which makes energy connectivity a central pillar. USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Department of Commerce also have regional lines of effort, which I’d be happy to delve into more detail on during the discussion.
So there’s a lot going on, and these are exciting times. New clean and renewable energy projects and technologies, along with growing regional connectivity, are creating market forces and opportunities that simply didn’t exist in the past. President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have made clean energy a cornerstone of the U.S.-India partnership, and their leadership has been a catalyst for global action. It makes me quite hopeful, and I’m very proud of the trailblazing work that the U.S. and Indian governments are doing, together, on one of the most critical issues of our time. Thank you.