Ten years ago, US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh aimed to remove a long-standing barrier to deeper US-India ties through a civil nuclear cooperation deal. It was a big idea, but no one could have foreseen how big it would become. Nuclear energy is a highly technical issue, yet somehow it managed to capture, especially in India, the imagination of the public at large. In 2007, I served on the staff of the then undersecretary of state, R. Nicholas Burns — the lead negotiator on the US side — and will never forget the night a security guard at the Delhi airport recognised him. “Nicholas Burns! 1-2-3!” he said, holding up a copy of that day’s newspaper covering the ongoing 123 Agreement negotiations. Ever since those negotiations were completed, the quest for the “next big idea” has hovered in the background of US-India ties.
Today, clean energy cooperation has become the new big idea in US-India relations. Following the Republic Day summit between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the importance of clean energy cooperation in this relationship could not be clearer. As Modi said during their joint press conference, “When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure” to “give a better lifestyle to the future generations, a good life and a good environment”. It’s an area little heralded by the press and public, although it stands to change the world we live in for the better more than any other area of bilateral cooperation.
India and the US share the urgent need to develop affordable, renewable sources of energy to power their economies, and secure themselves from the geopolitical risk of the tumultuous Middle East. Clean energy research and commercialisation bring both countries together in a shared approach to the global challenge of our time, climate change, and draw on the science and technology capabilities and talent for innovation in both countries. Modi means business on clean energy. In his eight months in office, he has already increased the target for India’s use of solar energy fivefold (admittedly a highly ambitious goal) from 20 gigawatt (GW) to 100 GW, and doubled the target for wind energy from 20 GW to 40 GW by 2019.
Building on the civil nuclear initiative, a specific focus on clean energy cooperation began in 2009. That year, Obama and then PM Singh announced the creation of a “Partnership to Advance Clean Energy”. The research and commercial applications carried out through this initiative in just under six years already represent some of the most creative ways two countries can work together. Harkening back to the agroscience cooperation between India and the US that delivered the Green Revolution, joint clean energy research is now under way across collectives of leading labs and research universities in both countries on solar, biofuels and building efficiency. Three US institutions (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Florida and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) have partnered with three leading institutions in India (Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore, the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology-Hyderabad, and CEPT University-Ahmedabad) to push ahead on new discoveries in the three fields.
India is also keen to learn from the shale gas experience in the US, as many admire the energy security that it has created. The US Geological Survey carried out a survey of the potential for shale gas discovery in three coastal areas of India (the Bombay, Cauvery and Krishna-Godavari basins), and LNG exports to India have been approved for two sites so far in the US (Cheniere’s Sabine Pass in Louisiana and Dominion Cove Point in Maryland).
Since 2009, clean energy collaborations have mobilised more than $2 billion in financing — and that number is quickly rising. This financing has become a key component of the US Export Import (Exim) Bank’s India portfolio, and now appears to be the major focus of US financing announcements at US-India meetings.
When Modi visited Washington last September, the sole big-dollar announcement was a $1 billion memorandum between the US Exim Bank and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA) — for clean energy, naturally. The Republic Day summit has gone even further: the package of $4 billion in financing highlighted by Obama includes $2 billion in US Trade and Development Agency support, $1 billion from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation dedicated solely to clean energy and the earlier $1 billion agreement. That’s a big deal.
Last, given the clear position of the government of India that the country will not be in a position to make a firm commitment to cap emissions while focused on its economic growth needs — meaning that no US-India climate agreement will materialise anytime soon — clean energy has become the most productive, shared way to continue working on the larger climate change question. Joint statements from recent bilateral meetings show how quickly the activities being pursued under the clean energy area have ramped up. Civil nuclear cooperation is now just one example. We also have the smart cities initiatives, off-grid work on clean energy access, a finance forum, energy security consultations and work on power systems, to list just a few.
From a big idea a decade ago focused on finding a way to cooperate on civil nuclear energy, the clean energy piece of the US-India relationship has grown exponentially. This quiet, gradual accumulation of numerous smaller projects has begun to add up to much more than the sum of its parts. As the US and India turn a new corner, elevating ties to a “friendship” from the previous “strategic partnership”, the emphasis on shared approaches to prosperity, sustainable development and mitigating climate change comes through strongly. Clean energy cooperation cuts across every area imaginable in meeting those three goals. There will be much more work ahead, but clean energy is an idea whose time has come for this relationship.
The writer is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served as US deputy assistant secretary of state, 2010-13.