Africa should learn from India on solar use, says IEA's Fatih Birol

Fatih Birol, executive director, International Energy Agency
At a time the world is going through a transition from traditional to clean energy sources, Fatih Birol, executive director, International Energy Agency (IEA), bets big on the role India has to play in future energy landscape. Edited excerpts of his conversation with Shine Jacob:

How do you evaluate the ongoing transition in global energy scenario?

There is a major transformation in the global energy basket. The established role of many countries is changing. We can see three big transformational or structural changes in the global energy landscape today. This includes a big change in the US’ role, which has been traditionally an importing country, now turning into a major exporter, even exporting natural gas to India. Second, China, which was a coal-based country for years, is adopting a new way of clean energy transition. The third will be the energy demand growth numbers, where India is taking the lead and becoming the most important nation in terms of energy demand, coming to the centre stage of global energy affairs.

Where do you see the future of electric vehicles in India?

Last year, electric vehicles had seen record sales. As of today, we have more than 3 million electric vehicles or electric cars. We expect this 3 million to increase to 300 million by 2040. This will be a very strong penetration and will be coming for two reasons — cost of batteries are coming down and several governments like here in India are giving strong support to electric cars on its purchases. Therefore, we see electric vehicle penetration to continue to increase. But the internal combustion engines, the traditional cars will still have a larger share.

Do you see India’s dependence on coal sector coming down in the near future?

If you look globally, investment in new coal plants is decreasing sharply. If you see last year, investments in coal was only one-third of the investments as compared to the 2000s. Still, 30 giga watt (GW) of final investments were made in new coal plants. We don’t expect a significant growth with change in policies of countries dependent on coal. In the longer run, we see the biggest increase among fossil fuels to come from natural gas.

In Asia, we have about 1,600 Gw of coal fleet, which is on an average 11 years old and it must have a lifetime of about 40 years. This is compared to the United States or Europe where coal fleet of over 40 years old is close to retirement. A significant chunk of plants in Asia is sub-critical. All we have to find is to get solutions such as alternative fuels and closing down inefficient plants.
LNG players are betting big on the Indian market. 

Can it give impetus to the country's thrust on clean energy?

There is going to be a huge wave of LNG in the next five years, driven by many countries. The US and Australia are important among them. India made very good moves in the LNG segment by making good contracts. Earlier, it was largely dependent on Qatar, but has now divested to Russia, US and other markets, which is a wise move. Gas seems to have a bright future, but in order to ensure that bright future, gas producers should not increase the prices.

In India, there is emphasis on solar energy. How do you view this?

I don’t know any country in the world that is investing too much on solar. Solar energy is cheap, it is environmentally beneficial and reduces the reliance on imported fuels. But the problem will be with the availability of sun at peak time, as electricity consumption goes up. In terms of solar, India is definitely a leader, China and the US are also taking big steps. My biggest hope is Africa, where two of three people have no access to electricity. They should look at the Indian example, in terms of providing more electricity to villages and making more and more use of solar.

India seems to have a high potential for unconventional hydrocarbons like gas hydrates and shale. Do you see a bright future for India in this regard?

India, Japan and several other countries have large deposits of hydrates, deep in the ocean. The issue is, to have a resource on something and to produce an extract that economically is something else. This comes at a time when there are lot of gas resources in the world and prices are going down. If it had come at a time when the gas prices were high, it may well have been a point of attraction. 

In the future, it can be a point of attraction, when technologies develop and we will be able to produce it commercially at a lower cost. Of course, the government should look at it but there are many easy sources. 


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