Could Diwali now be the festival of 'solar lights'?

Story highlights

  • Gopal Patel: Sensitivity to the environment is an inherent part of the Hindu spiritual worldview
  • As Diwali, the festival of lights, approaches, faith leaders have come together to advocate the benefits of solar power, he writes

Gopal Patel is the director of the Bhumi Project, based at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in the UK. The project works with Hindu communities globally to encourage good environmental practice, based on Hinduism's core teachings. The project also facilitates partnerships between Hindu and non-Hindu groups which have a common purpose to protect the environment. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)At the end of this month, Hindus in India and around the globe will adorn their houses with lamps, share feasts and exchange gifts to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights. For Hindus, light symbolizes the triumph of good over darkness, or of knowledge over ignorance.

In many Hindu traditions, the sun -- our planet's source of light -- is a major source of energy and power; now, as the world seeks to address climate change, Diwali's celebration of light takes on a very contemporary significance.
    Sensitivity to the environment is also an inherent part of the Hindu spiritual worldview. The Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti contain the earliest messages for the preservation of environment and ecological balance. Hindu traditions and teachers have always advocated for care and respect of the natural world. As we are growing more materialistic, we are in danger of losing this connection.
    Gopal Patel
    Indeed, many of the choices we have made have put grave strains on the links between humankind and the environment that we live in. As winter approaches in India, city dwellers will be bracing themselves for the annual pollution season, when high levels of particulate matter raise health threats for the young, the old and those with respiratory illnesses.
    It is timely, then, this Diwali, to consider the vital role of sunlight and solar technology in solving the most pressing environmental challenges we face -- generating clean energy at a massive scale.
    Thanks to technological advances, we know that harnessing the power of the sun has the potential to provide electric power to billions of people while keeping the air, water and environment clean. Issues of energy poverty and truly sustainable, equitable development are of tremendous importance to India's future.
    Eighty million households in India, many of them in rural communities, currently lack access to modern forms of energy. During the Paris climate negotiations talks last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi played a leading role in launching the ambitious International Solar Alliance (ISA), which aims to bring together solar resource-rich countries located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn to address their energy needs, improve air quality and mitigate climate change.
    Up until now, India's reliance on coal for almost three-fourths of its electricity supply has hindered its transition to clean energy. Part of the reason for India's reliance on coal for so much of its power is to be found underground, in the country's enormous reserves of the fossil fuel -- the fourth-largest in the world. But, like many other countries, India is also blessed with another abundant resource: sunshine.
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    India is a land endowed with abundant free solar energy. Using the country's deserts and farmlands and taking advantage of its 300-plus sunny days a year, India can easily generate around 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of solar power -- by using only 0.5% of its land.
    At present, the government of India has set the target of increasing from the current 8GW to 175GW of solar energy capacity by 2022, including 40,000 megawatt (MW) rooftop solar power capacity, as part of the strategy to reduce the country's carbon footprint.
    Progress such as this is vital if we are to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
    India's dense population and high solar insolation provide ideal conditions for the exponential growth of solar power as a future energy source. With GDP growing at about 8%, solar photovoltaic systems are the only renewable energy resource that can bridge the 'gap' between supply of and demand for energy, especially in rural India, where close to 80,000 villages are still not electrified.
    Solar energy can transform India and help to bring about decentralized distribution of energy, thereby empowering people at the grassroots level and eliminating the need for costly expansion of transmission and distribution systems.
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    India's clean energy dream can only be realized by a combination of solar power and energy storage. But getting there will require investment. Leading up to the recent BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit hosted by India, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) released a study which estimated that BRICS nations needed an additional $51 billion annually to meet the clean energy commitments they made in the Paris Agreement.
    India is falling short by over $16 billion each year. The IEEFA think tank has assessed that the current lending plans of the New Development Bank (NDB) set up by the BRICS governments will meet only 12% of the energy investment gap. Indian policymakers need to identify significant new public and private financing to meet their energy goals to deliver clean, reliable power to their communities.
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    For its part, the Indian government has taken several measurable steps toward solar transition. The Hindu community is becoming more involved. In March earlier this year, spiritual leader and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar joined forces with other faith leaders and institutions to launch an Interfaith Solar Alliance in order to mobilize Hindu religious leaders to solarize ashrams and advocate the benefits of solar to their followers around the world.
    In the lead-up to last year's Paris negotiations, with the Bhumi Project at Oxford, I helped to organize a People's Pilgrimage focused on climate change to a number of Hindu sacred sites. Prominent Hindu groups and leaders also endorsed the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.
    As Hindus celebrate Diwali, we should celebrate the progress being made to address these issues, while recognizing that much work remains. Despite their bold targets on renewable energy, countries like India should strive to do more to address climate change, especially in moving away more rapidly from a reliance on carbon-intensive coal for electricity.
    India's future, and the world's future, depends in large part on how well we use that ancient gift of the sun.