Exclusive Interview With Dr. Ajay Mathur, Director General, International Solar Alliance

DR. AJAY MATHUR - Director General, International Solar Alliance

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In an exclusive interview with SolarQuarter India magazine, Dr. Ajay Mathur – Director General, International Solar Alliance spoke about the recent major developments at ISA. He gave us insights into how rooftop solar can be scaled up, the importance of combining storage with rooftop solar, and the likely development of the solar sector in India over the next 5 years.


Please give us an overview of what major developments happened at the International Solar Alliance in 2021.

2021 has been a momentous year for the ISA as it continues to grow bigger and become more active since its founding a few years back. This has been a year of scaling up efforts to get solar projects moving in our member countries. The ISA has signed agreements with 8 member countries; agreements with 15 more countries are in the pipeline, for funding the development of solar energy demonstration projects in these under-developed and developing countries. These solar energy projects not only benefit their users but also help build the capacity of other stakeholders in those countries. The ISA is also assisting some of its member countries to develop large-scale solar parks, with a cumulative capacity of 3 GW.

Under its capacity-building initiatives, ISA has also been imparting training to professionals from across the world, including master trainers, policymakers, and bankers. The first batch of ISA Fellows obtained their M.Tech degrees from IIT Delhi during this year, and they have returned to their respective countries to join the workforce. We have also hosted several webinars during the year, such as the one on floating solar where NTPC shared their experience of setting up a floating solar power plant with our member countries.

During 2021, the ISA has not only increased our membership base, with countries such as the USA, Germany, and Israel joining us, we have also strengthened our ties with our existing members through frequent outreach efforts where we are trying to address their needs in terms of energy access, energy security, and energy transition. ISA has also launched new programs on solar for green hydrogen and solar PV and battery waste management to help prepare our member countries for the implementation of these emerging technologies.

COP26 has been a milestone event for the ISA with the launch of the Green Grid Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid under the joint leadership of India and the UK, and the forging of partnership agreements with agencies, such as the UNFCCC and the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet.

What are the main challenges facing the solar industry currently? How can they be tackled?

Globally, solar energy has established itself as a credible source of energy, and the low prices have been a major role to play in this. It is estimated that more than half of the renewable energy capacity installed in the year 2021 would be based on solar PVs. Assuming that solar PV continues to have the cost advantage that it currently enjoys, the next challenge being faced would be establishing it as a reliable and cheap source of round-the-clock power.

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This would require energy storage systems to become cheaper and more accessible around the world. The other option is of course connecting the region of the world where solar energy is being generated with the areas where the sun has set and there is a higher demand for energy. The Green Grid Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid is trying to make the latter possible by interconnecting regional grids to form a transmission network spanning multiple time zones.

In many parts of the world, the lack of affordable financing options is inhibiting the development of solar energy projects. As a result, a large share of the global market potential for the solar industry is getting locked out. There is an urgent need to de-risk these markets for solar energy deployment so that financing costs could be lowered, and investments could flow in. The ISA has been working on this, and we have secured the in-principle approval of our governing bodies to introduce a blended finance risk mitigation facility that is expected to attract investments and kick start projects in many of the member countries in the developing world. The end goal here is to have a much more equitable distribution of investments and solar energy deployment across all parts of the world.

Meanwhile, there are other challenges too that are coming up on the horizon. Some of the earliest solar energy plants are approaching their end of life, and with no means effectively disposing of them, the solar PV equipment is expected to end up in landfills. The resulting issue of waste management along with the scarcity of many of the rare earth metals used in solar PV and battery manufacturing builds a strong case for recycling of batteries and the equipment used in solar power plants. It is high time to ramp up research and development to come up with a definitive solution for the management of solar PV waste.

What is your view on the progress that rooftop solar has made in comparison to utility-scale solar in India? What needs to be done to scale it up even more?

Even though the installed capacity of rooftop solar installations at approximately 7 GW is much smaller in comparison to the capacity of utility-scale solar (roughly 40 GW), both sectors have complemented each other’s growth in the country. Both the sectors have benefited from the policy decisions and incentives provided in the past and have grown significantly with the fall in equipment prices.

However, India’s progress in the rooftop solar energy space has been particularly remarkable. Not only has the sector shown exuberant growth in terms of installed capacity, but it has also spurred several start-ups – even in Tier II and Tier III cities – which has in turn provided employment and skill enhancement to a large number of people. For this reason, India’s success story is one of the many models that the ISA is trying to replicate in its member counties.

At present, most rooftop solar installations are helping customers offset their electricity bills through net metering mechanisms. The next burst of growth in rooftop solar installations would come when consumers start seeing their solar installations as a business opportunity. These could come either in the form of a feed-in tariff implemented by utilities, implementation of peer-to-peer trading of solar energy, or incentives for use of stored solar energy in managing the peak demand. The common denominator among all these is the need for a smart grid that can manage these bi-directional power flows.

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According to you, how important is the synergy required between Rooftop solar and storage? What potential can this combination offer?

With the current level of technology, energy storage is an inevitable part of the puzzle for anyone looking to use solar energy beyond daylight hours. Although at present, the cost of energy from a rooftop solar installation with energy storage may seem prohibitive for most consumers, with the falling cost of batteries these are expected to become the norm in the future. Even at current costs, certain configurations of solar PV and battery energy storage (especially these complementing diesel gensets) can provide electricity to commercial and industrial consumers in India at prices similar to the price of existing power.

Another application where rooftop installations could be paired up with energy storage is through electric vehicles – which can be seen as mobile energy storage units. Consumers could charge their vehicles at their workplace using the solar energy generated from the rooftop installations, and these vehicles could then be driven back home where it plugs into the wall and supply the house with the surplus energy it has stored in its batteries.

The modular and versatile nature of solar PV and energy storage solutions (particularly batteries) renders itself extremely useful for the creation of a variety of operating models, such as the vehicle-to-home concept.

Which big changes do you see happening in the Indian solar industry in the next 5 years?

The next 5 years seem extremely promising for the Indian solar industry. As the country’s solar PV installed capacity continues to be scaled up, we expect to see increased deployment of grid-scale energy storage systems and many more projects committing to supply round-the-clock electricity. In the distributed energy generation space, such as rooftops and mini-grids, solar growth will be driven by deeper penetration and grid- interactivity as more consumers opt to get solar installations for greater reliability and lower costs.

While the projects side of the industry continues to grow, we are expecting to see a paradigm shift in terms of the solar PV manufacturing industry in India. The performance of Linked Incentive Programmes and the investments announced during the last year in the manufacturing space is expected to put India up on the global map and act as a beacon for foreign investments in solar PV manufacturing in the coming years.

These 5 years are also crucial for India for the development of a strong base for future technologies powered by solar energy. Green hydrogen is definitely a direction where India would need to develop its capacity and lay the foundation to support future project developments. This would also be essential to lay the steppingstone for use of solar energy in forms other than electricity through power-to-x pathways that are essential for a successful energy transition.

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What can we look forward to from the International Solar Alliance in 2022?

These past years have laid the foundation for the International Solar Alliance; and as the Alliance continues to take root among the member countries, we are starting to see visible results on the ground. ISA’s plan is to continue doing this in the future at a much larger scale. For this, we are going ahead with a strategy where ISA will be working closely with the member countries and handholding the government agencies and other stakeholders in these countries to develop a vibrant business environment that could attract investments for solar energy deployment.

We recognize that each ISA member country has a different set of needs that would allow it to grow a self-sustaining solar energy sector its within own economic context. For this very reason, the ISA is offering, customized approaches for supporting each of our member countries which are required for developing a national solar energy ecosystem. Programmatic support for developing countries would a one of the core focus areas where the ISA would assist the country in setting up projects, such as solar pumps, solar mini-grids, rooftop solar, and solar parks. These efforts would be reinforced by the capacity-building support where we would be imparting specialized training for the major stakeholders in the member countries, including technicians, policymakers, and bankers. ISA’s analytics and advocacy activities would help disseminate and share with the member countries all the data and knowledge gathered by the ISA through its experiences.

While the ISA helps build the member countries up as attractive destinations for solar investment, we will also liaise with the global ecosystem of private sector developers and manufacturers, development banks, and private investors. The ISA is also putting in place a blended finance risk mitigation mechanism that would make it easier for the global investor community to invest in these countries.

All these activities would continue to be aligned with the Towards 1,000 philosophy where our goal is to mobilize USD 1,000 billion in solar investments by the year 2030 which would result in 1,000 GW of solar capacity addition which would bring energy access and energy security to more than 1,000 million people in the developing world.

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