For the first time since India’s independence in 1947, the country now has a power surplus. This is a remarkable achievement as India was just a few years ago grappling with rampant power deficits and outages. The surplus comes from increased capacity (mostly coal) additions rather than energy efficiency improvements, but with Indian cities accounting for six out of the top 10 worst polluted cities in the world, progress is not without complications.

Like Germany, India has struggled to achieve power selling parity between its southern and northern regions, but is finally starting to see prices close-to-equal across the country. While India’s achievement is remarkable from one point-of-view, the fact remains that 300 million Indians still do not benefit as they have no access to electricity and most of the added capacity is from highly-polluting coal power causing grievous air quality.

In fact, air pollution has gotten so bad in India that it kills half a million each year in the country, and shortens life expectancy of Indians by about two years. India now has worse air pollution than China, and is doing little to reduce coal-power emissions.

India's burgeoning population has the resources for power and clean air, but the balance will not be easy to maintain. Credit: Getty Images

The argument often goes that coal power is needed, so that it can provide electricity to millions who do not have it. But if capacity is increasing without increases in electrification along with concomitant increases in air pollution, how strong is this line of reasoning?

Fortunately, there is much promise in India. Across the country, there is vast renewable energy potential (especially if you county hydropower resources from the Himalayan mountain range). Already today, the state of Tamil Nadu is looking to sell a full 1 GW of excess wind power, which is a certainly an impressive improvement from 2013 when it experienced 16-hour power outages.

Long-term, India has confirmed to 40% renewable power generation by 2030, including a pledge to push RE capacity from 35GW to 175GW by 2022. Solar power alone has increased from 2.4GW to 7GW capacity in just two years.

India’s progress on achieving a power surplus is movement forward by one important metric, but unless it expands electrification and reduces pollution (both local and global) it will be a pyrrhic victory.