Tuesday, 1 December 2015

India's power push at COP21 at Paris (International Solar Alliance)

On the sidelines of the plenary 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference - 21st yearly Conference of Parties (#COP21) at Paris, India has pledged to reduce 33-35% of its carbon emissions (at 2005 level) by 2030. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Francois Hollande has launched an ambitious initiative called ‘International Solar Energy Alliance’. The origin of the ambitious initiative goes back to the election campaign days of the Prime Minister aspirant Shri Narendra Modi who foresaw the ambition to curb the usage of non-renewable energy resources from India and to build an enthusiastic ‘solar alliance’ that could serve the interests of the energy needs of the entire world and not just India. It was a part of the ‘Acche Din’ progeny. As the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, he spurred companies to build more than 900MW of solar plant across the state in just a couple of years and commissioned Asia’s largest solar park at Charanka village.

What exactly is this 'International  solar alliance'?
It is a strategic cluster of around 120 countries that falls within the tropical region, receiving abundant sunshine throughout the year which may be used to harness the solar energy potential. This solar energy may be used for domestic consumption as well as for strategic exports to subtropical, temperate and polar countries. India has invited over 120 countries that falls in the tropical region to be a part of the ambitious project. A good number of them lies in the Gulf region having historical enterprise with non-renewable resources like petroleum oil. The Southern coast of the United States too falls within the region which has a strategic reserve of Shale Gas.

Why India has emerged as the natural leader for this alliance?
India has an ambitious target to install 175GW of renewable energy by 2022, which includes 100GW of solar energy usage. India has reiterated its stance to draw 40% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030. Currently, renewable energy, nuclear energy and hydropower together contribute 30% of the overall installed capacity in India. With power production expected to triple, this will amount to 320 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity. Since 2010, India has been providing 40% subsidy on capital costs of Solar PV Panels which is available through NABARD in India (as per JNNURM mission). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to give electricity to every one of the 300 million Indians living in the dark. For this, three more ultra-mega solar parks were backed with cash in July 2014, as were solar-powered irrigation pumps and canal-top solar plants. The electric fences on India’s sensitive northern borders will be solar-powered as the military installs 1,000MW of panels to replace expensive diesel generators across its posts. Another 7,000MW of solar is out for tender across the country and the rooftops of Delhi are to be bedecked with panels under a new scheme. The solar energy from the Rajasthan desert sun can meet whole of India’s future power needs, a proposition which has been realized meticulously by the Government of India as evident from the building up of 4,000MW Ultra Mega Green Solar Power Project (UMPP) near Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan. More than 25 major states of India out of 29 have an operational or installed solar power capacity. This makes the country a natural leader of the solar club. The geographical presence of the country in the tropics add boon to its leadership role.

What are the benefits to be a part of the alliance?
Current geopolitics revolves around the presence of reserves of non-renewable sources of energy like petroleum oil, shale gas, nuclear energy, natural gas etc. The skeptics have often linked the tensions in West Asia and Africa to the insatiable thirst for energy resources of many alleged ‘neo-colonizers’ present in the region in the form of private, governmental as well as intergovernmental organizations. Presence of cartels like OPEC, African Union that invariably control the price of the energy resources through the forces of demand and supply might meet an end to their monopoly over the energy resources, after the discovery and operationalisation of the alternative sources of energy i.e. solar energy. Solar energy is unlimited in supply, non-pollutant, non-disaster prone and complements climate change. With solar technology evolving, costs coming down and grid connectivity improving; it becomes the best alternative to conventional sources of energy.

How does it affect India’s foreign policy objectives?
Indian government is investing an initial $30m (£20m) in setting up the alliance’s headquarters in India (the Secretariat). The eventual goal is to raise $400m from membership fees, and international agencies. As Isaiah Bowman (geographer and strategic adviser to the former US President Franklin Roosevelt) played an instrumental role in the establishment of the United Nations and forcing its location to be based in an American city (New York), the Secretariat of the ‘International Solar Alliance’ would bring India at the forefront of the world politics. It has the potential to boost India’s bid to secure a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. Like the citizens of OPEC member nations, the future generations of India would reap the economic and social benefits of this long term initiative as the solar energy to be exported to the sub-tropical, temperate and polar countries would make solar energy production a viable business in India. It would considerably reduce India’s energy import bill which stands at almost 70-75% of total energy needs of our economy, saving around $120 billion energy bill annually. This lower dependency on energy would provide a political leverage to India to take strategic position in international affairs which it currently refuses to acknowledge through the principle of non-interference.

Is the path of success too difficult for the solar alliance?
There would be silent yet stiff resistance from non-renewable energy providing cartels because the operations of the solar alliance is deemed to end the monopoly of petroleum, natural gas, shale gas, nuclear energy suppliers. In this battle of energy production, India stands to lose strategic allies like Russia, Scandinavian countries, African countries, Latin American countries, Gulf countries, Central Asian countries, Australia, China as well as the United States that export high cost energy resources throughout the world. It is possible that the only support that India may inevitably rely upon is from Europe where the demand of energy is rising with no conventional resources of energy of their own, including renewable energy. This is evident from the fact that the strongest support India has received in this initiative was from France and organizations like Solar Power Europe with others, especially Europeans following the line. Europe is fed up from Russian, African, Latin American and OPEC’s arm-twisting for their energy needs, therefore it looks towards a renewable alternative, by which India’s solar alliance could fill the void. It would be a herculean task for Prime Minister Modi to bring all the stakeholders on the table and highlight the importance of the solar alliance that actually has the capacity to harness the unlimited resource for contemporary and future generations. The most important task for India would be to take Russia on board, whose economy thrives on energy exports, especially after international sanctions. Central Asian, Latin American and African countries too would not be much delighted about the prospects of the solar club that could jeopardize their economy for long term. A strategic threat to our leadership in the International Solar Alliance comes from China, which is also aggressively pursuing the green technology, installing 12,000MW in 2013 – a record for any country in a single year. But a ray of the light for India looks in the Gulf region (in Dubai), which has announced a Dirham 100 billion ($27 billion) programme to make solar panels mandatory for all rooftop buildings by 2030, part of a plan to make the city a global clean energy centre. Dubai aims to generate 25% of its energy from clean sources by 2030, rising to 75% by 2050. Taking advantage of our close relationship with UAE, India can get the West Asian region on board. More high level foreign visits, regular information exchanges, strongest PR and lobbying, removing unrealistic insecurities from all the concerned stakeholders would actually help in giving a much needed thrust to the ambitious programme.

Fossil fuels still get more than $40bn (£24bn) in subsidy every year in India, even a quarter of which if invested in solar energy research would provide long term strategic gains for the nation. Legislative as well as citizen support could make India a global leader in this noble vision. We could celebrate ‘Solar Energy Week’ every first week of January (associated with perihelion position of the sun) to encourage our people to adopt solar technology for household as well as industrial needs. Indian media too has to realize its duty to promote a strategic yet humanistic vision of the Prime Minister. Ancient Indian civilization calls for ‘सेवा परमो धर्म (Sewa Parmo Dharma)’ which means ‘Service is the highest duty’. The commencement of the ‘International Solar Alliance’ project envisages this ancient Indian idea through which India aims to help the world with a clean, low cost and a viable renewable source of energy.

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