Clean Tech

Pitching for a place in the sun

Updated on: Mar 10, 2018




M Ramesh on India's solar diplomacy

Among the hundreds of buildings that are being raised in India’s fastest growing industrial suburb – Gurgaon – one promises to stand up as much for its pomp and splendour as for its stature. The building will consume investment of ₹ 175 crore and, when completed, will function as the headquarters of the India-sponsored maha-ghatbandhan —the International Solar Alliance.

Since it was launched on November 20, the opening day of the COP-21 at Paris, in the presence of the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, the Indian initiative to bring together all sunny countries between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn into a knowledge and finance sharing alliance, it received extraordinarily good press. Many observers note that the ISA is as much a diplomatic move as an energy and environment related one. The world’s press has duly noted that as the motive force behind (and the headquarters of) a grand alliance of 120 countries, mostly developing, India seized the leadership position in solar.

“It places India in a more assertive and constructive position on the international stage,” said Liz Gallagher of think tank E3G, to .

“ISA is a great public relations and leadership initiative,” says Jairam Ramesh, a Congress MP, and former environment minister. “Whether the alliance leads to joint bargaining to drive down costs, or to joint R&D, remains to be seen.”

Wait-and-watch brigade

Ramesh’s views are a sample of the narrative around the ISA. ‘So far so good, but let’s see how it unfolds’ is what everybody is saying. Of course, the Indian industry is excited over possible business opportunities. Sunil Jain, CEO and Executive Director of renewable energy company Hero Future Energies, believes the alliance will be a great opportunity for the Indian industry to transfer its low-cost solar plant construction techniques to other developing countries. Still, even in the Indian industry, the general view is “let’s wait and watch”. However, the global eye seems centred on collective bargaining to drive costs down. Missing in the narrative is the real meat of the alliance — exchanging knowledge on solar so that the technology becomes a driver of economic development. Critical phrases in the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s ‘working paper for ISA’, such as “rural transformation”, “save foreign exchange”, “expand energy infrastructure without unduly heavy investment” and “increased employment generation” do not seem to have received due attention.

“When you say ‘solar’ people generally tend to think of large PV installations pumping electricity into the grid,” observes Vineeth Vijayaraghavan, Chair, IET India, Solar Panel. 

“But a bigger social impact of solar lies in off-grid and appliances, and ISA will play a big role here.”

The working paper says the focus areas are not just grid-connected solar plants, but also stuff such as “village electrification and mini-grids, solar lanterns, mobile chargers, solar-powered telecom towers, milk chilling centres, potters wheels, solar spinner for weavers, street lights, solar water pumps, solar heating and cooling systems and so on.” These activities, it says, will contribute significantly to employment generation at local levels and spur economic activity.

The ISA goes even beyond this, deep into softer areas of co-operation — how to draft solar policies, how to prepare project reports, developing standards and testing methods, solar resource mapping, training programmes, exchange of students and, of course, designing financing instruments to raise funds. These will form a network on which, eventually, a common solar market could be created. When there is such a common solar market, as Dr Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based think tank, observes, projects could be aggregated for financing and procurement.

Sceptics’ viewpoint

Some are cynical about the ISA. An article in the Western media mocked that the ISA was India’s grandstanding in order to counterweight the criticism that it would continue to burn coal, and that it would not even commit to bringing down its emissions.

(India’s commitment is to bring down emissions per unit of GDP, but not on the overall.) Another cynical view was that the ISA would singularly depend upon the commitment for provision of finance by the rich countries at the Paris conference (a commitment that the developed countries are trying to wriggle out of.)

Still, as Vijayaraghavan points out, the fact that countries like the US and China are in the alliance makes the ISA credible. Rhea Suh, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based energy think-tank, has termed the ISA an “unprecedented international solar collaboration”.

For sure, the ISA has kicked-off with many credible promises. But the bottomline will depend on how the ISA shapes the solar world. And that would depend on what happens in the next few years in the swanky new building coming up in Gurgaon.

Published on December 08, 2015
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