Interview with UpendraTripathy

“Banks still see solar power as an AAA investment”

Covid-19 has disrupted global solar chains and put many under-construction solar power projects on hold. With infections rising daily, the problem is far from over even though economies are slowly opening up. The International Solar Alliance (ISA) has been making efforts to solarise primary health centres in member countries as its response to the Covid-19 crisis. With 86 signatories as of today, the ISA will soon open its membership to all UN countries. In an interview with Renewable Watch, UpendraTripathy, director general, ISA, spoke about the key programmes that the ISA is working on, its role in the future and the impact of Covid-19 on global solar power development. Excerpts…

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on project development, new tenders and investments across the ISA member countries?

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, mixed reports have emerged about its impact on the global solar market. While solar manufacturing operations are now beginning to return to normal in China, questions remain about the impact on demand. Moreover, plans to commission new solar projects will be delayed this year. Deadlines have been relaxed for projects that are still in the construction phase as developers in some countries have reported that photovoltaic development was impacted due to constraints in labour movement or labour shortages. Movements in the foreign exchange market triggered by the Covid-19 outbreak will also affect all segments of the market.

In your perspective, what will be the role of solar power in the post-Covid-19 scenario?

Even though this pandemic will undoubtedly impact the market and the 100 per cent clean energy goals of many countries in the immediate future, the demand for solar is still up. Investors and banks still see solar power as an AAA investment. Moreover, clean energy goals are still in place. Covid-19 does not change the inevitable – that more companies, more countries and more consumers support renewable energy as a primary source of new energy generation.

What is the role of decentralised solar power, particularly in areas with low grid penetration?

Several hundred million people in the world are at a risk of being without access to electricity by 2030 despite the ongoing work towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 – sustainable energy for all. Decentralised solar energy systems provide direct obvious economic and social benefits to their owners. For example, they can sell the excess power back to the grid and therefore alleviate their electricity bills. Over the past few years, off-grid solar companies have been gaining momentum, providing safe, clean and affordable energy solutions to tens of millions of people across the continent and preventing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and indoor pollution produced by combustible fuels used for lighting and cooking.

Some executives are concerned about the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, warning that the sector is facing an unprecedented threat that could destroy companies and harm millions. I believe that every crisis brings with it countless opportunities. The current one is no different, and it presents great potential for the solar industry. If we focus on opportunities and the potential to innovate and influence, the entire sector will prosper and impact the lives of people even more than it did before. Therefore, there is an urgent need to intensify efforts to improve solar power delivery models and integrate them fully with energy sector strategies.

What is the current ISA membership and what are the targets for this year?

The ISA secretariat got legal personality on June 6, 2018, after the ISA and India signed the host country agreement, the basis for the establishment of the headquarters of a treaty-based intergovernmental body. We have 86 signatory countries – 42 are from Africa, 20 from Asia-Pacific, three European and 21 from Latin America. Membership will be soon open to all UN member countries situated even outside the tropics. We are waiting for the US, China and Germany to become members. We need ratification by three more countries to bring the first amendment into effect.

What are the key ongoing ISA programmes? What has been the progress under these?

We are assisting member nations and the solar business community in many ways. One is bringing in corporates and other organisations as networking partners in a public-private partnership. We have a network of 48 partners, including private corporate partners such as SoftBank (Japan), CLP (Hong Kong) and India-based public corporate partners like IREDA, SECI, NTPC, PGCIL, REC, CIL, PFC, ITPO, SBI, NHPC and EESL. We have partners in UN bodies like the UNDP, UNIDO and UNEP, and multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The ISA is running programmes in the agriculture, rooftop, mini-grid, storage, electric vehicle (EV), solar park, and solar cooling and heating (proposed) segments to create demand, capacity and ecosystems in member countries. We have aggregated demand for 270,000 solar pumps, 10,000 MW of solar mini-grids and 1,000 MW of solar rooftops worth $5 billion in the initial phase. The price has been explored for 272,000 diesel-to-solar pumps from 22 member countries (with ESSL’s expertise) and five companies (four from India) have been empanelled to interact with member countries. Global tendering and mass procurement will bring down costs to a great extent for member countries. Plans for the year include demand aggregation for 47 million solar home systems, 250 million LED bulbs, 50,000 primary health centres, 5 million solar cook stoves, 10,000 solar-powered HFC-free cold storage, 10,000 MW of solar parks and five-million solar powered street lights.

We are now facilitating two “freedom solar parks” – 500 MW in Mali and 218 MW in Togo (West Africa) – with NTPC acting as a consultant to member countries and arranging grid connectivity and low-cost loans and securing 25-year power purchase agreements on a transparent and competitive basis. Ten other countries have been identified to set up such parks. Under the STAR-C programme for capacity building, we have 213 “master trainers” trained with the assistance of the Ministry of External Affairs. We are also starting an international MBA programme in solar energy with IIT Delhi next year.

How has the perception of financial institutions about solar power systems changed after Covid-19?

There is a growing consensus that greater investment in clean energy will contribute to global recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and make economies more resilient against future shocks.

How is the energy storage segment shaping up globally? Is the ISA working on promoting solar-based storage as well?

With increasing solar penetration, energy storage will assume a more important role in the future due to four simple facts. Solar power is available freely and abundantly and can be easily stored. Energy storage is also required to store the excess solar power that is not being used. Further, the stored power will be needed when solar power cannot be transmitted due to grid constraints. Finally, storage can be used to store and reuse solar power to produce green hydrogen. The cost of energy storage is going to be a key factor in determining solar power uptake in the future. As it is, energy storage costs have already started declining and a further drop is expected in the near future. Going forward, solar parks are going to be designed for 24×7 power supply with other renewable energy resources and energy storage as well for a stable power supply. At the ISA, we are working with our member countries to develop an energy storage policy. We want to aggregate energy storage demand and create a big market to drive down costs. This applies to EVs as well.

How is the role of the ISA likely to evolve in the coming years?

World Solar Bank: A World Solar Bank can reduce the cost of blended capital and make funds more accessible to small island developing states (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs). Even with a paid-up capital of $2 billion, it can nudge $50 billion per annum via co-financing at 20 per cent. All member countries and industries can benefit from a financial institution focused on solar energy. The ISA will also facilitate the One Sun, One World and One Grid global project once India brings out the complete vision document, for which work has commenced.

ISA CARE: As a response to the Covid-19 crisis, the ISA has launched ISA-CARE to solarise primary health centres in member countries, which require cold storage facilities for vaccines and medicines. We plan to launch a project at our World Solar Technology Summit this year for the solarisation of hospitals in 46 SIDS/LDC member countries. The ISA aims to solarise all unelectrified primary health centres and hospitals in every district of our member countries.

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