Urbanizing India’s energy transition


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THE clean energy transition under-way globally is fundamentally multi-scalar in nature. There is a widening realization of the central nature of urbanization and the urban spaces being critical sites that will shape and be shaped by this transition. This can be considered as a reprise for the decentralized scales of energy applications in urban areas as cities that today depend on the centralized national grid and market infrastructure, once generated and managed energy within their own local boundaries.

The revival has been wrought by the new technological opportunities, socio-political (equity and access) imperatives and climate change linked implications. In light of this, the southern urban energy scholarship has argued that the heterogeneity and complexities that characterize urban energy landscapes in the Global South1 need to be embraced rather than ignored by the general energy system scholars, planners, and policymakers.

In this article, I briefly review these evolving perspectives in both theory and praxis to critically reflect on the Indian urban sustainable energy transitions landscape. I do so by raising some underlying questions that are often presumed to be given and therefore remain unquestioned in India’s energy transition landscape.

Specifically, I question the scale at which India’s energy transitions should be playing out or should be limited to; Who should govern this potentially multi-scalar transition? Should the hegemony of conventional centralized structures, institutions, and ideas continue, given the fundamentally different underpinnings of this transition? At which level should the legitimacy as well as the accountability of India’s multi-scalar energy transition lie? In training the assessment lens on urban energy, this article encourages a discussion on the democratic and inclusive frames of India’s present energy transition pathway.2

I highlight the imperatives and new possibilities that make the scalar turn of the energy transition to the urban necessary; give a brief glimpse into the current nature of actions some city governments are already taking; and lastly, highlight the blind spot that exists in the current energy transition policy framework that impedes this emerging avenue.

The 2016 New Urban Agenda, declared on the heels of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), firmly puts the energy transition agenda at the core of urban areas.3 Urbanization, however, has been implicated in energy sustainability matters and subsequently climate change, long before that with issues of increasing inter and intra-urban inequalities, resource capture, and wastage.

Today, cities house 55% of the global population while emitting 75% of the global carbon emissions, mostly from their significant energy footprint. The urban, often framed as the economic engine of every country, has also concentrated the externalities of these economic practices embedded in energy use – in the form of air pollution, climate calamities, energy poverty, and others. These have further deepened the existing inequalities in the access to even basic civic infrastructures and consequently capacities to manage these externalities.

More recently, though, this narrative around the urban as the source of problems has been changing.4 Cities are now seen as sites for ushering transformative energy sustainability, with many city governments taking a leadership role in setting targets, network building, and spurring innovation.


A key development driving this narrative is the decentralization prospects of contemporary clean energy technologies. Energy transitions are increasingly being rescaled and made geographically contingent through sustainable transportation, built environment comfort and energy-efficient infrastructure, smart micro-grids, local renewable energy generation on roof-tops, modern cooking, or overall urban planning. Kuzemko and Britton argue that this material dimension of clean energy technologies has capacitated local city governments to think and perform on local energy issues and opportunities.5 The German trend of re-municipalization of large-scale private energy utilities by both small and large urban municipal bodies since 2005 is one such example. Wagner and Berlo, through their assessment of 72 municipalities, argue that municipalities are increasingly willing to take back control of public services to initiate faster energy transitions and increase local public value while wielding wider political influence on the energy markets.6


Transnational networks of city governments, formed partially to bypass the tardy response of national governments to climate action, are also considered instrumental in reviving cities as actors driving energy transitions while meeting multiple objectives like developmental needs, climate mitigation and adaptation, and delivering equitable access to infrastructure and services.

An evolving stream of systems-oriented scholarship has also called for explicit recognition of the energy embeddedness within the urban biophysical, economic and social processes. This understanding calls for heeding the opportunities and problems that interactions of these multiple processes produce, like behavioural changes and resource circularity.7,8

Participation of cities of the Global South has been quite evidently limited in these recent narrative developments.9 The centralized conventional energy systems and grid-based electrification processes have been the predominant focus of energy transitions here. Global South scholars have highlighted how climate action for cities is increasingly interlinked with the global financial flows and often unnecessary technological optimism, making the central governments’ involvement and other hierarchical forces incontestable.10 They have instead argued in favour of reconfiguring energy transitions to the urban scale with frames that help understand the heterogeneity, informalities, and the energy injustices/marginalization at the urban scale in the economies of the South.11,12

Cities in the South, therefore, have the potential to emerge as political actors themselves – political actors, organizing to resist global inaction on climate change; but also, as political actors who are capable of (re)exerting their authority on matters of the energy transition, typically and uncritically assumed to be the domain of national players.


The shape of India’s energy transition trajectory will innately mirror India’s urbanization pathways. With urban households consuming 7-8 more than a typical rural household, urban areas and linked economic activities have the largest footprint on India’s energy resources and infrastructure. Paradoxically, sustainability concerns of India’s energy futures also arise from much of the urban that is yet to be built. The International Energy Agency estimates that approximately 270 million people are going to be added to Indian cities in the next two decades, where 70% of the new buildings are to be located.13


What these numerical estimations iron over is that within these concerns of unsustainable energy use in urban areas, are shadow spots of energy poverty and insufficiencies which often go unnoticed in India’s supply focused energy sector. As rural to urban migration increases in search of better economic opportunities, often induced by climate impacts in rural areas, slums and low-income housing will characterize our urban future, giving rise to unregulated and unplanned urban expansion and practices of gaining energy access beyond the formal structures.

Even within formal structures, like in the case of urban development schemes like low-income urban housing, lack of energy concerns can cost India an opportunity to lock-in low carbon consumption patterns and deepen current energy inequities.14 Debnath et al. show, through their research in the slums of Mumbai, the implications of ignoring energy considerations in urban policymaking wherein state slum rehabilitation initiatives have intensified the energy poverty of the beneficiaries.15

Other forms of energy poverty and injustices are more embedded and derived in nature but particularly relevant to Indian urban spaces. Urban air pollution and urban heating, often experienced by the authors of this issue of Seminar through the airconditioned bubbles of their rooms, demonstrate the localized injustices where benefits of modern energy technologies and their externalities are unfairly distributed. The above discussion brings home the fact that it is not just the urban landscape that is shaping India’s energy pathway, but India’s energy transition choices are also shaping the urban.

Sustainable energy transitions in India will, therefore, need to take into account these issues of exclusion, injustices, resilience, and future adaptation in urban India that often get obscured in the din of demand mitigation and supply centric calculative of the energy sector.16 Further, as these urban energy landscapes are intrinsically socially and geographically contingent,17,18 so should be their transitions. This approach calls for a complex and comprehensive view where energy issues are seen in a more multidimensional way that is spatialized, contextualized, and also humanized.


But how and by whom should this transition be governed in a just and fair way has remained a confounding and contested affair in the Indian national energy policy discourse. While academics and scientists both have discussed the importance of urban energy in climate mitigation and overall sustainability in the Indian context, there has been little discussion on the above contentious issue. I argue, city governments or urban local bodies (ULBs), as the first level of the elected representative bodies, are both pragmatically and normatively well placed to govern urban energy transitions. In many ways, ULBs are already intervening with the different objectives of energy savings and revenue, climate change mitigation and adaptation, ‘green’ urbanization, even in the absence of a formal mandate.


A number of ULBs in India have been long involved in the localized energy issues, drawing support and augmenting their capacities through international city networks and local non-state actors. Contrary to the arguments of lack of capacity and autonomy, city governments have often identified opportunities based on local interlink-ages and climatic conditions – otherwise overlooked by higher policymaking bodies. The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC), for instance, was one of the first corporations to have an Energy Efficiency (EE) Cell that was set up to manage the burgeoning energy costs of the corporation. The increasing burden of costs was not a one-time interim budgetary concern but was a calculated foresight to manage future energy costs and opportunities for the corporation.


Surat being a particularly environmentally vulnerable city with a history of flooding and deadly epidemics, prioritized formalization of water linked infrastructure across the city, particularly in the informal settlements that housed the large migrant population of the city. The growing industrialization of the city made the rapid expansion of the administered urban areas and water related infrastructures imminent, adding further to the budgetary stress. The EE cell partnered with an academic institution and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to initiate a project that generates electricity from wastewater treatment plants. The project yielded significant returns and was later replicated by multiple ULBs in the state. It has now become part of the standard operating procedure for all future wastewater treatment plants in Surat.

Having a separate EE cell helped in building the institution’s capacity for future energy sustainability efforts. As a result of its efforts, Surat became the first corporation to invest in large-scale wind and solar power projects (outside city premises) to tap tax benefits and offset the water-related expenses of the corporation. This was a first of its kind intervention by any Municipal Corporation and was replicated by several other ULBs within the state of Gujarat. More importantly, Surat connected its energy expenses to the need for water conservation practices amongst its citizens and took steps towards spreading awareness in the city.19

Buoyed by the benefits and recognition to the Corporation, SMC promptly made sustainable energy and sustainability, in general, a keystone of its development plans and set specific ambitions for meeting a certain portion of the city’s energy demands from clean energy interventions. Surat has the aspiration to become India’s first Municipal Corporation that is powered entirely by clean energy.


Beyond its utilities, SMC initiated a solar rooftop programme to channelize the national government and state government incentives tapping the local appetite and capacity for such projects. It struck a partnership with an expert organization, convened a stakeholder discussion with local banks and distribution utilities and launched a widespread citizen awareness campaign with the help of the city’s educational institutions.

Responding to a bottom-up need for hot water throughout the year as a result of specific geographical and cultural context, cities like Pune, Amravati, Durgapur, Nagpur, and Thane offered incentives to encourage the use of solar water heaters. On the other hand, cities like Pune and Kolkata have been particularly responsive to the local political demands for climate and environmental action that led to increased public participation and co-production of clean energy solutions. Pune’s vibrant citizen activism field has been one of the key reasons for an active Environmental cell that encouraged the corporation’s thinking around clean energy interventions within the city.20 Pune Municipal Corporation’s focus on non-motorized transport and pilot trials was mainly through a close collaboration forged with local civil society organizations.

In Kolkata, local issues like air pollution and the growing demand for climate action pushed local city councillors to establish a special Committee on Clean Energy that tapped into local expertise and important public voices. The committee designed and approved the ‘first-of-its-kind’ solar park lighting model that generates its own electricity to feed during the day and use it for park lighting at night.

For Kolkata Municipal Corporation, this has meant savings on their heavy electricity bills. It has now officially taken a decision to replicate the model in all corporation parks in Kolkata. More broadly, it reflects how the ULB was able to convene an influential group and tap into local resources for clean energy innovation.

In addition, international city networks and climate organizations have been instrumental in supporting many cities in continuing their interventions in this area. Networks like ICLEI, Asian Cities Climate Change Network (ACCRN), and C40 have partnered with select cities to capacitate the ULBs and often shape their energy sustainability agenda. In many cases, they also aided the ULBs in identifying long-term challenges or opportunities in the areas of climate resilience or adaptation that have evaded the attention of even national energy policies. In Surat, for instance, local consultants, supported by the ACCRN programme, identified the impending challenge of urban heating in the city and implemented a pilot project that involved low-cost installations in building heat resilience in low-income households


Despite the stated and demonstrated potential, local targets, detailed technical city clean energy plans, the scope for ULBs to undertake localized, people-centric energy transitions in India’s energy policymaking structure remains stymied. I discuss below some of the factors that are facilitating this wilful exclusion of ULBs.

Cities, despite their enthusiasm, have largely depended on national or state energy transition related programmes. This dependence was also encouraged through national programmes that were evidently ad hoc or parochially designed but did not focus on comprehensively enhancing the agency, authority or capacities of the ULBs. A number of energy interventions at the urban level were predicated on the technology-specific incentive structures (subsidies) and regulatory spaces offered by the higher levels of the government. The thrust on solar water heater installations by ULBs, for instance, faded when national policies withdrew the incentive. While building regulations by some state governments have made solar water heaters compulsory in most buildings, the compliance remains uncertain.


At a more specific level, national programmes like the Solar City programme and the Smart Cities Mission encouraged, at least on paper, a comprehensive energy management plan for the entire city. The Solar City programme envisaged ULBs to implement renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that met at least 10% of the city’s electricity needs. The programme facilitated a consultant-prepared solar energy master plan and establishing a solar city cell to build the institutional capacity of the ULBs. The programme offered financial support to select few cities to prepare the Solar City Master Plan and even fewer for implementation of pilot projects. The programme was abruptly discontinued a few years back.

While for some cities, the Solar City programme was able to embed a long-term city-wide vision for clean energy projects, like in the case of Surat; in Pune, the discontinuation of the programme derailed the local energy transition plans. The Smart City Mission that was launched by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) in 2015 also included as an obligatory condition that 10% of the city’s energy are met through solar energy. Today, the programme is mainly used to channel funds towards run-of-the-mill projects in most cities and has little buy-in from the national and state-level energy decision-makers.

The national-level energy policy discourse has either largely ignored the potential of demand and consumer-centric approaches to energy transition or increasingly created institutional structures that depend on non-representative private entities like private companies, consultants, corporate special purpose vehicles.

Interviews with officials at the national level reveal an understanding that looks at energy usage as a homogeneous phenomenon that need not be spatially constituted. An official at one of the responsible ministries says, ‘We do not differentiate between the urban and rural energy supply’, despite a long-running programme on cities and clean energy by the MNRE.

Within national policy documents, while urbanization and its significance for energy and other interlinked sectors are repeatedly discussed, the involvement of ULBs is limited to energy demand from municipal services or portrayed as just another consumer category.


The limited to no space made available to ULBs in the formal clean energy policymaking spheres needs to be understood through interconnected yet distinct aspects of both energy and urban policymaking in India. The foundation of the governing authority allocated to ULBs or the ‘third tier’ of the government lies in the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act that also provides an ‘indicative’ list of areas that ULBs can potentially govern. Energy or electricity did not feature in this list. The respective state governments were not only responsible to finally select these areas of devolution but also were made responsible for overseeing the devolution process. The Electricity Act, passed in 2003, also did not accede much space for the newly emerging ULBs to play any role in the evolving frameworks of the electricity sector.

In an era where distributed modes of modern energy technologies mostly included diesel generators, this was an explicable omission. These new electricity sector laws have also prevailed over the existing Municipal Corporation Acts in a number of cities (Kolkata and Surat, for example) that have identified energy related matters as a discretionary area of authority for the local governments.


This lack of strong legislative teeth, additionally undermined by the well established devolution politics of the state governments, has reinforced the current restrictive view of the ULBs held by the national and state-level energy policymakers. The contemporary understanding of the importance of local representative institutions for governing contextually, spatially, and socio-economically wrought energy systems has not led to any changes in the antiquated legislative foundations of the ULBs in India.

I also argue that the technologically reductive view of urban areas and ULBs in India’s clean energy sector is a function of the politics of energy transition that is underway in India. India’s sustainable energy transition is being superimposed onto the policy frames and the institutional pillars that were originally set to fulfil the conventional large-scale industrial energy supply concerns of the country soon after its independence. Liberalization policies followed in the 1990s have only opened the sector to private monetary flows without expanding the participating actors’ base to a great degree, even though that was one of the key objectives.

With a renewable energy target of 175 GW by 2022 (a fivefold jump from 2015 capacity) and now a target of 450 GW by 2030, India’s energy transition pathway is firmly set in a similar direction within the corporatized,21 profit maximizing, industrial scale, investment attracting/galvanizing frames.22 Inevitably rendering itself to the international financial flows and knowledge paradigms, India’s clean energy policies are increasingly assuming the neoliberal undertones where involvement of decentralized state institutions and representative politics is discouraged.


This paradigm is replicated in the decentralized technological applications area. Implementation of schemes like solar rooftop PV and municipal energy efficiency is being led by commercial entities such as the local electricity distribution utilities and Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL). As Khan et al. illustrate, even the Smart Cities Mission has been designed to involve limited stakeholder participation and to weaken democratic processes with a facade that assumes the opposite.’23 This shift towards corporatized unaccountable entities to govern the urban is often justified by policy-makers who endorse the view that the issue of weak capacities of ULBs need not be addressed but merely bypassed. This view favours seeing the urban – its diversities, its local politics, its inequalities – sans its government.


Sustainable transition of energy systems, made imperative by climate change, inefficiency, and localized environmental pollution, will be incomplete without the basic normative values of fairness, social justice, and democracy. This becomes more relevant in the cities of the Global South where energy systems – complete with their formalities and informalities; its infrastructure and institutions, its users and suppliers – are also characterized to be varied, context-dependent, inequitable in their access and effects. Urban governments, as elected representative bodies, become critical stakeholders and the rightful mediators of these transitions.

I focus on these evolving perspectives of the urban energy transitions scholarship in the context of India to argue for a more decentralized and democratic approach to sustainable energy transitions – not just in terms of infrastructure but also in terms of the institutions governing it. Actions initiated by some of the progressive ULBs in India illustrate that there is not only a need but also an appetite to steer a more spatially contingent energy transition. This perspective is gaining some traction in the formal urban development policymaking circles.24

However, the current exclusionary and ad hoc policies of the mainstream energy sector are a concern. Unless a more holistic and inclusive view of India’s energy transitions pathways is taken, India’s energy environmental futures will be bereft of a critical democratic stakeholder. Even the limited interventions that are currently underway in a select number of cities stand to be jeopardized from the neglect and subversion of the authority of the ULBs, despite increasing technological possibilities.

The enthusiasm around solar rooftop projects in a number of cities, for instance, is seriously at risk as the authority to implement solar rooftop projects has now been allocated primarily to distribution utilities in recent regulations. Distribution utilities, in general, have been well known for their stand against distributed solar rooftops for the anticipation of revenue loss. Implementation of building energy efficiency regulations has faced a major bottleneck at the city level, not just because of the lack of capacities at the local level but also for its implications on local politics.


This paper aims not to forward an over-optimistic and non-critical view of interventions by city governments. City governments are but instruments of the larger political economy and economic paradigms of the state. My aim here is to make a case for a more democratic nature of India’s clean energy transition where elected urban governments are given equivalent space to navigate their own transitions.

Given the policy centred nature of climate and energy fields, urban governments can serve as important conduits for more representation of urban energy issues linked with local socio-economic, human welfare, and fairness dimensions in the national and international policymaking arenas. In addition, they can potentially act as the local aggregating public entities that articulate and acknowledge local contextual needs and opportunities and can be held accountable to the urban citizens for more inclusive and equitable transition pathways.



1. Global South for the readers of this article refers to both developing and emerging economies (including China).

2, The article is an extension of my doctoral research on the politics of urban energy transition in India where I look at power mechanisms that shape clean energy actions at the urban scale. I present part of the reflections that emerge from both extensive elite interviews and document analysis carried out at the urban, state, and national scales.

3. The New Urban Agenda, Habitat III, Quito, 2016.

4. Jeroenvan der Heijden, ‘Studying Urban Climate Governance: Where to Begin, What to Look for, and How to Make a Meaningful Contribution to Scholarship and Practice’, Earth System Governance, 2019, pp. 1-10.

5. Caroline Kuzemko and Jess Britton, ‘Policy, Politics and Materiality Across Scales: A Framework for Understanding Local Government Sustainable Energy Capacity Applied in England’, Energy Research and Social Science 62, 2020, pp. 1-10.

6. Oliver Wagner and Kurt Berlo, ‘The Wave of Remunicipalisation of Energy Networks and Supply in Germany – The Establishment of 72 New Municipal Power Utilities’, ECEEE Summer Study Proceedings, Germany, 2015.

7. Xuemei Bai, Alyson Surveyer, Thomas Elmqvist, F.W. Gatzweiler, Burak Guneralp, Susan Parnell, A.P-Richard, Paul Shrivastava, J.G. Siri, Mark Stafford-Smith, J.P. Toussaint and Robert Webb, ‘Defining and Advancing a Systems Approach for Sustainable Cities’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 23, 2016, pp. 69-78.

8. Sumedha Basu, C.S.E. Bale, Timon Wehnert and Killian Topp, ‘A Complexity Approach to Defining Urban Energy Systems’, Cities 95, 2019, pp. 1-13.

9. Harriet Bulkeley and V.C. Broto, ‘Government by Experiment? Global Cities and the Governing of Climate Change’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38(3), 2013, pp. 361-375.

10. V.C. Broto, Enora Robin, and Aidan While, Climate Urbanism – Towards a Critical Research Agenda. Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2020.

11. Mathias Koepke, Jochen Monstadt, Francesca Pilo, Kei Otsuki, ‘Rethinking Energy Transitions in Southern Cities: Urban and Infrastructural Heterogeneity in Tanzania’, Energy Research & Social Science 74, 2021, pp. 1-12.

12. V.C. Broto, Urban Energy Landscapes. Cambridge University Press, UK, 2019.

13. International Energy Agency, India Energy Outlook, New Delhi, 2020.

14. Radhika Khosla, Anna Agarwal, Neelanjan Sircar, and Deepaboli Chatterjee, ‘The What, Why, and How of Changing Cooling Energy Consumption in India’s Urban Households’, Environmental Research Letters 16, 2021.

15. Ramit Debnath, Gianna Monteiro Farias Simoes, Ronita Bardhan, Solange Maria Leder, Roberto Lamberts and Minna Sunikka-Blank, ‘Energy Justice in Slum Rehabilitation Housing: An Empirical Exploration of Built Environment Effects on Socio-Cultural Energy Demand’, Sustainability (Switzerland), 12(7), 2020, pp. 1-27.

16. Radhika Khosla and N.K. Dubash, ‘Rethinking India’s Energy Policy Development Challenge Around Multiple Objectives’, Economic and Political Weekly 55(32 & 33), 2020, pp. 38-44.

17. André Paul Neto-Bradley, Rishika Rangarajan, Ruchi Choudhary and Amir Bazaz, ‘A Clustering Approach to Clean Cooking Transition Pathways for Low-Income Households in Bangalore’, Sustainable Cities and Society 66, 2021, pp. 1-11.

18. Anjali Ramakrishnan, Matthias Kalkuhl, Sohail Ahmad and Felix Creutzig, ‘Keeping Up With the Patels: Conspicuous Consumption Drives the Adoption of Cars and Appliances in India’, Energy Research & Social Science, 2020, pp. 1-12.

19. Indro Ray and Meenu Tewari, Meeting the Challenges of Climate-Proofing a Water System: How Surat Learned and Adapted. ICRIER, New Delhi, 2018.

20. Interviews with officials.

21. Transformation of public bodies into corporate entities prioritizing commercial interests.

22. Aniruddh Mohan and Kilian Topp, ‘India’s Energy Future: Contested Narratives of Change’, Energy Research and Social Science 44, 2018, pp. 75-82.

23. Sama Khan, Persis Taraporevala and Marie-Hélène Zérah, ‘Mission Impossible Defining Indian Smart Cities’, Economic and Political Weekly (Review of Urban Affairs), 53(49), 2018, pp. 80-88.

24. Smart city and recently launched Climate Assessment Framework, though still problematic.