As secretary in the Union new and renewable energy ministry during 2014-2016, Upendra Tripathy was credited with changing the profile of the Indian renewable energy sector and helping it attract global attention.
He had then played a crucial role in increasing India’s solar energy target five-fold – from 20,000 MW to 1,00,000 MW. A retired IAS officer of the Karnataka cadre, Tripathy is currently director general of the International Solar Alliance (ISA).
He was a key player in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team which had pitched for the ISA – a coalition of 121 solar resourcerich countries formed to address their special energy needs.
Tripathy is its first director general and has prepared a detailed roadmap to collectively address key common challenges and scale up solar energy applications in line with their needs. His main target is to mobilise investments of more than $1000 billion by 2030 with a mission “every home no matter how far away will have a light at home”.
Before his stint in the new and renewable energy ministry, he also served as an adviser in the Indian Embassy in Belgium, Luxembourg and at the European Union in Brussels.
He also served as an additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. In an interview to Vijay Thakur, Tripathy shed light on the global solar energy sector in the wake of the coronavirus (Covid- 19) pandemic.
Q. The solar energy sector has been growing at the fastest pace for the past four years. But the coronavirus crisis, which changed the entire world, appears to have adversely affected the solar sector as well. What, in your view,would be the impact of the Corona pandemic on the global solar industry, and on India in particular?
A. You are absolutely right. An unknown and unseen virus has paralysed and humbled mankind. But we will overcome this and life will return to normal. Solar is a part of the same social energy fabric. The same economic laws and forces of demand and supply apply to this sector also.
Because of the corona pandemic, there is a sharp decline in power demand, which makes utilities to force shut-down of even solar plants and parks. In fact the infirm power sector shares an unequal burden and is more vulnerable. This is true for India as well as ISA member countries.
Then there is an impact on solar plants where the work is in progress. Lockdown has created acute shortage of manpower on the ground. Then lack of transportation had also resulted in disruption of the supply chain.
Further, the decline in price of petroleum products may also partially affect where firms, institutions or entrepreneurs used solar heating in place of heating by petroleum products. In a nutshell, Corona has affected all factors of production – land, labour, capital, and technology in all affected countries, including India, albeit to different extents.
Q. The International Solar Alliance had set up a roadmap with targets for global solar applications for 2030. In the wake of the ongoing Corona crisis, do you intend to make any changes in your strategy in order to meet its 2030 targets?
A. The main aim of the ISA is “one sun, one world, one grid” and give opportunities to ISA member countries for solar energy trading and sharing across regions.
Our roadmap for 2030 is to build 10 gigawatt solar minigrids, 50 GWatt of solar parks with 24×7 energy storage, one billion solar home lighting systems and 150 GWatt of solar rooftops, one billion solar hybrid cook stoves, 50,000 solar health care centres, one billion solar street lights and 15 million solar pumping sets.
This cannot be done without training the workforce. We are targeting to train 5,000 master trainers in solar energy and set up 100 R&D facilities. Corona has definitely affected many things. We have to postpone our technology missions for the time being. We all are working from home.
At this time it is very difficult to assess the actual loss or Covid-19 impact. The pandemic is not yet over and we are praying for the best. Having said that, I still maintain it is too early to say that Corona will indeed force us to reboot our roadmap for next ten years.
Q. In the context of Covid-19, you have taken a new ISA CARES initiative – something on the lines of PM CARES in India.What exactly is this ?
A. ISA CARES initiative is about solarisation of primary health centres in member countries to provide storage of sensitive vaccines including the one for Corona. In Least Developed Countries (LDC) and in Small-Island Developing States (SIDS), where there is no reliable grid, solar power would enhance access to high quality essential health care services.
These centres can be used to preserve and distribute medicine required for Covid-19 patients and also for Covid-19 vaccines as and when these are in the market. Solarisation of healthcare facilities in these countries will provide dual benefits of reliable healthcare systems as well as energy security to member countries.
The ISA will aid and upgrade the existing essential healthcare services of LDC and SIDS by solarisation of hospitals, pharmaceutical units, laboratory facilities and any other necessary infrastructure such as research divisions.
ISA shall mobilise necessary funding of around $8 million for ISA CARES INITIATIVE through crowd funding from individuals, corporates, foundations and countries. The ISA will reach out to its existing corporate partners and potential partners for mobilising funds.
Q. India had taken a lead in forming the ISA.How you think would the ISA help India, especially its solar industry. And what benefits does India get from the location of the ISA headquarters being in India?
A. India is the host country of the International Solar Alliance. So it was a matter of pleasure and pride that member countries unanimously agreed to locate the headquarters of the ISA in India without any competitive bidding. India gets a place of pride in the world community.
ISA can help Indian solar industry in several ways – mainly by creating new markets by aggregating and creating demand for solar goods and services outside India, which the Indian industry can compete to cater.
It will also bring them into a global network where they can exchange views and learn new challenges and take them to countries which are traditionally non-English speaking. Around 50 per cent of our members are non-English speaking. It would create a platform for India to increase its global influence.
Q. Why there are still many countries, especially China, USA , Germany and South Africa, who have not yet become members of the ISA?
A. This is a very interesting question. We had 121 “within tropics” countries in the beginning of the ISA. Out of them, 86 countries have signed the framework agreement.
However, China, South Africa and the USA are three important countries who are not yet our members. We are waiting to welcome them as and when they decide to become our members.
However, Germany is very much interested to become a member but that needs our first amendment of opening of borders to all UN member countries to first be accepted by 30 countries. 26 countries have already done so. Once four more countries do so, many countries from outside the tropics will come forward to join it.
Q. Currently,almost all global players are dependent on China for solar cells and its ancillaries,which are required for solar industry.What should be the strategy to stop the dominance of the Chinese solar industry? Can the ISA help the world in this regard?
A. China has the advantage of mass production and has been responsible for substantial cost cutting in the PV (photovoltaic) prices globally. Although a decentralised system of manufacturing may reduce logistical costs of transportation, it remains to be seen how competitive it could be vis-a-vis Chinese methods and systems.
Cost will be an important factor in the global market. We wish the ISA initiative, solar revolution in the country, and PM’s call for “self reliance (Atmanirbhar)” would show some path to the Indian solar industry.