Energy Means Growth. Just Ask India.

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Reliable, affordable energy is the great democratizer, allowing individuals to compete in the modern world and fueling economic development. That’s why it is perhaps surprising that the world’s largest democracy, India, is struggling to deliver electricity to a third of its people. That’s 400 million people if you’re counting, more than the population living within America’s borders.

According to an in-depth report from the Wall Street Journal, shortages of critical fuel sources like coal, natural gas, and oil are dampening India’s efforts to continue its torrid march toward modernization and urbanization. Most of those without electricity in India today are rural. Businesses are going without too. The nation’s economy in the most recent quarter saw one of the slowest growth rates in a decade.

“The prime minister and a few wise men are beginning to realize that there’s a very bleak outlook in terms of energy security, and that this is going to create the single largest constraint on the economy, one of alarming proportions,” said Gokul Chaudhri, a partner at New Delhi-based consultancy BMR Advisors, whose clients include Indian and foreign energy firms.

The main culprit? Not enough coal. India announced in April that coal imports had jumped 80% from the year prior. And some coal-fired plants are still running below capacity or not at all. The shortage recently led India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to order the nation’s state-run coal company, Coal India, to increase production and imports. That will be a tall order, though. India lacks much of the infrastructure needed to explore, mine, and transport the fossil fuels it does have. Ramping up imports is just as troubling, as that places India in direct competition with China.

In short, India is in danger of going dark, which should be illuminating to us as Americans. We suffer none of the disadvantages that India does with respect to energy. Their coal reserves pale in comparison to ours. We are flush with natural gas. Our national policies are even, believe it or not, more accommodating to nuclear power. Their roadblocks are natural, logistical, and demographic. Ours are simply political.

To observe India is to see a nation fighting to power its future, trying just about anything to compete in the global economy and to arm citizens in even the most remote of villages with the basic currency of modern life. India has an energy shortage. The U.S. simply lacks the political will to use the energy we have in abundance. For the sake of consumers, let’s hope our nation’s policy makers change course and once again put all energy options on the table without prejudice.