Research Spotlight: Ganesh Hegde on collaborative research to inform national-scale energy transitions

Written by
Neha Agarwal and Glen Chua, with contributor
Oct. 11, 2023

Welcome to the first post in our new ‘Spotlight Series’. In this series, we would chat with graduate students and postdocs at Princeton researching issues related to environmental policy. In this part, we speak to Ganesh Hegde, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.


ganesh in blue shirt outside indian fort

What are you working on at present?

I am working on two related projects that aim to identify ways for India to achieve its decarbonization goals. The country’s overarching decarbonization goal is to go ‘net-zero’ by 2070. Its short-term targets are to reduce its economy’s emission intensity by 45% and to install 500 GW of renewable energy by 2030. My first project, the Net-Zero India (NZI) project, intends to identify techno-economic pathways to a net-zero economy considering the country's complex social, economic, and cultural context. We initiated NZI last summer, and I helped develop the project proposal and build a collaborative team across Princeton and India to implement it. At present, the project is set up at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and I am coordinating the project within the Princeton team, composed of researchers from the Andlinger Center and C-PREE.

The second project involves developing a power capacity expansion model to support the goals of NZI. The model would help us identify the changes that India’s energy system needs for achieving its 2030 energy and decarbonization goals. The model would identify requirements for new energy infrastructure and the optimal sites for developing it. Utilizing the model, we would also investigate the potential impact of specific energy and decarbonization policies on renewable energy capacity, electric vehicle penetration, and land use in Indian states.

What drew you to this research topic?

India's energy transition is at a critical juncture. It entails not only a technological shift, but also involves social, cultural, economic and political changes. It would change the land use and existing energy infrastructure quite significantly. Globally, the scale and pace required are orders of magnitude higher than that of the Industrial Revolution and economic growth during the post-war period. For India, where the demand-side has a huge potential to grow, the energy transition will be even more dramatic. So, it is an exciting research problem cutting across STEM and non-STEM disciplines.

As a power systems engineer by training and an accidental interdisciplinary researcher (thanks to my doctoral research at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay!), the complexity and the collaborative and exploratory nature of the NZI project interested me the most. I was also drawn to the possibility of contributing to tackling real-world problems and policymaking.

What are some key conclusions from your work?

While the studies are still at a nascent stage, we have some preliminary insights into the land-use challenges associated with developing large-scale renewable energy projects in India. We observed that although western, central, and southern India have better solar and wind potential than other parts of the country, the land is highly fragmented, i.e., comprises small tracts of land with varied ownership, and therefore, unsuitable for developing utility-scale renewable energy projects that require large land areas. Furthermore, even when there are promising sites, securing the land is hard due to a myriad of reasons such as competing uses of the land (commercial, industrial, agricultural, housing, etc.) and objections from the community, e.g., the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon. Most of the suitable sites are also far from actual demand centers leading to a need for major transmission upgrades and build-out.

To understand the challenges better, we are developing Cost Surface Maps that would describe the complete costs, including environmental costs, of building the power plants and transmitting the energy to the place of end-use. 

What have been some important aspects of conducting policy-related collaborative research for you?

First, the initial project scoping for NZI required considerable time, primarily to understand the country’s current policy landscape. In India’s case, understanding the relationship between the central, state, and local governments was pivotal. This is because the responsibilities for key aspects of energy infrastructure development, viz., land use planning, budget allocation, infrastructure planning, etc., fragment and overlap between different levels of government. For instance, land-related matters fall under the jurisdiction of state governments and states can act independently of the central government. On the other hand, central and state governments alike can make policies and decisions on the topic of ‘electricity’.

Second, the project involved a diverse set of stakeholders ranging from our research collaborators to the central and state governments and industries to civil society organizations, nature conservation groups, labor unions, and farmer groups. Many of our collaborators in this project have been our long-time research partners, which saved us time in initial scoping. However, as we progressed, evolving a project governance structure, including research goals, work streams and organization roles, and communication protocols, organically through dialogues had been vital. Similarly, we had dialogues with other stakeholders to understand their varying motivations and perceptions relating to the transition to design the project goals and direction more effectively. We were also able to establish a rapport with them, including the policymakers, who could be the potential users of the project findings.

Finally, in the NZI project, the government has not been directly involved at any stage. Instead, the relevant government agencies and policymakers are informed of project outcomes during milestone deliberations and all project reports are shared with them. This was a conscious decision by the project team to avoid any direct influence from the government agencies. This approach strikes a balance between independent research and the valuable engagement of government stakeholders. 

If you’re a PhD student or a postdoc and interested in sharing your environmental policy-relevant research through this series, please reach out to either Neha ([email protected]) or Glen ([email protected]).