The inaugural summit of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in New Delhi over the weekend with 40 heads of state in attendance was an impressive showcase for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership of the global renewable energy agenda. The ISA is the outcome of an idea Mr Modi presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015 and envisages the involvement of 121 countries situated (fully or partially) between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — essentially Earth’s “sunbelt”. The focus of the first summit was to discuss ways to make technology and finance available to meet the ambitious target of creating 1,000 Gw of solar power by 2030 and mobilising $1 trillion. This is unquestionably an ambitious goal, given that installed capacity globally is only a tad over 300 Gw, and finance and technology remain a question mark when three of the four largest players — China, Germany and the US — are not signatories and one — Japan — has not yet signed the Paris accord. Much of the ISA’s credibility will depend on whether India achieves its own targets and there are some well-founded doubts on this score.
In its “intended nationally determined contributions” under the Paris Climate Change Accord, India has committed to increasing the amount of electric power from clean energy sources to 40 per cent by 2030. As part of this commitment, some 175 Gw of renewable energy capacity is to be installed by 2022, of which 100 Gw will be from solar power alone. This constitutes the world’s largest renewable energy plan. Several issues suggest that the country is at risk of falling prey to the chronic Indian tendency of allowing announcements to run ahead of achievements. For one, unlike power generated from fossil fuels, solar plants suffer downtime — night-time, cloud cover, rain, storms and so on — so that plant load factor barely touches 20 per cent at best. This factor alone has constrained the ambitions of countries like Germany from transitioning fully from coal and gas. India currently has an installed capacity of 12.2 Gw, which is admittedly a significant jump over 2.6 Gw three years ago, but that still accounts for a negligible proportion of electricity generation. In the absence of a viable battery storage technology, solar downtime continues to present difficulties for grids in integrating solar power electricity generation.
This technical issue has been compounded by the fact that competitive bidding has driven rates down to Rs 2.44 a unit, making states unwilling to honour power purchase agreements set at almost double that rate or higher in the past. Additionally, much of the solar power target is driven by solar parks built by the Centre and the states that are unlikely to generate optimum amounts of deliverable power. That leaves rooftop solar power for households, for which the target is 40 Gw. The prohibitive cost of photovoltaic cells (despite a 30 per cent subsidy) has constrained this expansion, and the government’s recent move raising tariffs on imported panels, principally from China, the world’s largest producer, is likely to compound the problems. A practical approach to rooftop solar power could well bring India nearer to achieving its target than more grandiose, headline-catching programmes.