A coal billionaire is building the world’s largest clean energy plant, five times the size of Paris

By | March 20, 2024

Five times bigger than Paris. Visible from space. The largest power plant in the world. Enough electricity to power Switzerland.

The scale of the project, which is transforming parts of the arid salt desert on the edge of western India into one of the most important sources of clean energy anywhere in the world, is so overwhelming that the man in charge can’t keep up.

“I don’t even do the math anymore,” Sagar Adani told CNN in an interview last week.

Adani is Executive Director of Adani Green Energy Limited (AGEL). He is also the cousin of Gautam Adani, Asia’s second richest man, whose $100 billion fortune comes from the Adani Group, India’s largest coal importer and a leading miner of the dirty fuel. The conglomerate, founded in 1988, has activities in areas ranging from ports and thermal power plants to media and cement.

Its clean energy unit AGEL is building the sprawling solar and wind power plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat at a cost of about $20 billion. When completed in about five years, it will be the largest sustainable park in the world and should generate enough clean electricity to power 16 million Indian homes.

The success of the Khavda Renewable Energy Park is critical to India’s efforts to reduce pollution and meet climate goals while meeting the growing energy needs of the world’s most populous country and fastest-growing major economy. Coal is still responsible for 70% of India’s electricity generation.

A worker works on a blade for a wind turbine produced at an Adani Group factory in the Indian city of Mundra.  - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty ImagesA worker works on a blade for a wind turbine produced at an Adani Group factory in the Indian city of Mundra.  - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

A worker works on a blade for a wind turbine produced at an Adani Group factory in the Indian city of Mundra. – Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

Located just 20 kilometers from one of the world’s most dangerous borders separating India and Pakistan, the park will cover more than 320 square kilometers and be the world’s largest power station regardless of energy source, AGEL said.

“A region that is so big, a region that is so unencumbered, there is no wildlife, there is no vegetation, there is no habitation. There is no better alternative use of that land,” Adani said.

The group’s big green plans have not been affected by the turbulent year it has had since January 2023, when US short seller Hindenburg Research accused it of decades of fraud.

The Indian mining-to-media conglomerate denounced Hindenburg’s report as “baseless” and “malicious.” But that didn’t halt a stunning stock market collapse that at one point wiped out more than $100 billion from the value of publicly traded companies. Gautam Adani’s personal fortune also suffered a severe blow, collapsing by more than $80 billion in the month after the report’s publication.

But the tycoon has since recovered and the group is now investing billions in the clean energy sector.

It plans to invest $100 billion in the energy transition over the next ten years, with 70% of investments earmarked for clean energy.

A necessity for 1.4 billion people

Adani Group’s clean energy pivot comes at a time when India has set itself some ambitious climate goals. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that renewable sources such as solar and wind energy will meet 50% of India’s energy needs by the end of this decade.

In 2021, Modi promised that India would achieve net zero emissions by 2070, which is still a few decades later than developed economies.

The government has set a target of 500 gigawatts (GW) of non-fossil electricity generation capacity by 2030. AGEL, the country’s largest renewable energy company, aims to supply at least 9% of that, with almost 30 GW generated from its Khavda network. parking in Gujarat alone.

Failing to transition to renewable energy is not an option, Adani said.

“There is no choice for India but to do things on a previously unimaginable size and scale,” the 30-year-old said.

A worker inspecting solar panels at an Adani Group factory in Mundra.  - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty ImagesA worker inspecting solar panels at an Adani Group factory in Mundra.  - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

A worker inspecting solar panels at an Adani Group factory in Mundra. – Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

That’s because the demand for energy will explode in the coming years.

India is the world’s third-largest energy-consuming country, although its energy consumption and emissions per person are less than half the world average, data from the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) shows.

That could change soon. Thanks to rising incomes, energy demand has doubled since 2000, with 80% of it still covered by coal, oil and solid biomass. Over the next three decades, the fast-growing economy will see the largest growth in energy demand of any country in the world, the IEA said.

“If India does what China did, if India does what Europe did, if India does what the US did, then we are all facing a very, very bleak climate future,” Adani said, referring to the historic use of fossil fuels as those countries developed.

His dire predictions are not dramatic. India is comfortably positioned to grow at least 6% annually in the coming years, analysts say, and could become the world’s third-largest economy before the end of this decade.

As the city develops and modernizes, the urban population will increase dramatically, leading to a huge increase in the construction of homes, offices, shops and other buildings. According to analysts, India will add the equivalent of a London city to its urban population every year for the next thirty years.

Demand for electricity is expected to skyrocket in the coming years due to factors ranging from improved living standards to climate change. The latter has caused deadly heatwaves across India, and as a result, air conditioner ownership will see a sharp spike in the coming years.

According to the IEA, by 2050, India’s total electricity demand from residential air conditioners will exceed the total energy consumption in all of Africa today.

India cannot rely on fossil fuels for its growing needs without disastrous consequences for efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

“If you imagine adding 800 GW of coal-fired thermal capacity… this in itself will kill all the other renewable energy initiatives happening around the world, in terms of CO2 emissions,” Adani said.

A worker walking past rows of solar panels in the Khavda Renewable Energy Park.  - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty ImagesA worker walking past rows of solar panels in the Khavda Renewable Energy Park.  - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

A worker walking past rows of solar panels in the Khavda Renewable Energy Park. – Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

Both sides of the street

The conglomerate’s green plans are impressive, but climate experts are critical of the continued massive investments in fossil fuels.

“[Gautam] Adani continues to walk both sides of the street,” said Tim Buckley, director of Sydney-based think tank Climate Energy Finance.

The Adani Group is not only one of the largest developers and operators of coal mines in India, but also operates the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Australia, which has faced fierce opposition from climate activists who say it is a ‘death sentence’ for the Great Barrier Reef.

“Instead of pouring billions into new fossil fuel projects, India would be much better served if Adani put 100% of its efforts and resources into developing low-cost zero-emission technologies,” Buckley added.

That is not an option at the moment, according to Adani.

Another view of the Khavda Renewable Energy Park - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty ImagesAnother view of the Khavda Renewable Energy Park - Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

Another view of the Khavda Renewable Energy Park – Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

More than 600 million people in India will “reach middle and upper income levels in the next 10, 15 years,” he said. “They cannot be deprived of their basic energy needs. ”

Everyone would be happy if we could “get 100% of that from sustainable energy sources…[but]… practically speaking, that’s not an option” at this point, he added.

He also said activists in developed countries, which have historically emitted more greenhouse gases, are often unable to understand the staggering challenge India faces in growing its economy and its clean energy industry at the same time.

“I think it is also very important to respect the fact that every country has its own right to ensure that the people of their own country are well served from an energy perspective,” Adani said.

“So India is doing a bit of coal? Yes, of course it is India. But is India doing a huge amount of renewable energy sources? Yes, there is no doubt about that,” he added

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