Opinion: 'Development' and 'diplomacy' are driving India's energy discourse

Even import can add value to the Indian economy, provided the purchased products are used for production purposes Photograph:( Others )

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India Dec 20, 2017, 10.09 AM (IST) Sanvit Shah

India’s developmental goals and the trajectory of expanding economy largely depend on our ability to source energy. Shifting the focus of our economy towards manufacturing sector with ‘Make in India’ campaign, coupled with the developmental goal of ‘Power for All’ will be the key drivers of energy demand.

For the nation, which imports around 70 per cent of its primary energy demand, ensuring the security of supply always takes the precedence for policymakers; and the reason why energy policy discourse in India often revolves around ‘Energy Security’. In November 2015 Prime Minister Modi announced an idea establishing the ‘International Solar Alliance’ (ISA), during his speech at 21st Conference of Parties in Paris, a part of the larger narrative, convincing the world of India’s commitment towards combating climate change.

The idea was floated earlier during Third India Africa Forum Summit in October to “provide a dedicated platform for cooperation among solar rich countries...”; and has received encouraging response from across the world – from tiny African developing nations to developed economies including France and Australia. New Delhi’s initiative proved successful in bringing international community closer, but the challenge remains in meeting the stated objective of harnessing solar energy for sustainable development – and not becoming just another multilateral forum that is high on rhetoric and low on action.

Amidst the price and supply uncertainties for conventional forms of energy coupled with associated geopolitical risks, renewable energy remains the key hope for our future supply of energy. India pledged 175 GW of power from renewable sources by 2022 including 100 GW of solar power, achieving this target largely depends on the availability of funding and ease of technology transfer; with ISA, India has launched a platform where ‘solar rich’ countries can share their experiences, learn from global best practices, secure funding and access technology.

ISA is an impressive concept theoretically but its success depends on global cooperation and thus diplomacy is essential for development. As of December 2017, ISA framework has 45 signatories, and 15 nations ratifying the framework; a recent public announcement from Beijing, describing its plan to join the solar alliance is a positive development since China is one of the largest manufacturers of renewable energy devices and equipment including photo-voltaic cells.

While ISA aims to achieve 1000 GW power from solar by 2030, the key challenge is about securing finance. ISA is primarily an organisation with the majority of members from developing world, and thus its ability to deal with global north will determine the success of the alliance. It is worth noting that while the US has pulled out of Paris Climate accord, President Trump accused India and China of getting ‘undue advantage’; the narrative of this ‘undue advantage’ could prove to be a challenge for ISA in securing ‘clean energy finance’ from advanced economies; we know that the US is currently the first and alone in building up such a narrative, it is difficult to predict that nobody else would join this bandwagon in future.

India has its fair share of achievements in harnessing solar energy – be it one of the largest single location solar power plants (648 MW) in Tamilnadu’s Kamuthi or the first airport to run completely on solar power in Kerala’s Cochin; these achievements have boosted the credibility of New Delhi’s leadership for the alliance. However, the primary challenge for the newly formed alliance will be to prioritise small-scale but inclusive and accessible renewable projects over large-scale ‘demonstrative’ and ‘headline-making’ projects, given the global obsession with adjectives such as ‘first’, ‘biggest’ or ‘largest’.

New Delhi has been a voice of the global south for long – from its prominent role in Non-Aligned Movement to representing and empowering voices of developing nations in international organisations and multilateral forums; and thus stakes are high, as India begins to lead the global discourse on renewables through ISA. The success of alliance in promoting and enhancing ‘clean energy’ supply will also drive India’s ambitions to be recognised as an ‘exemplary’ power.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).

Sanvit Shah

Sanvit Shah is strategy and management consultant at CarEd Advisory. He regularly writes on Indian political economy and foreign policy.