Upendra Tripathy, former Secretary in the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, has played a leading role in increasing India’s solar energy target five-fold from 20,000 MW to 100,000 MW by 2022. He is the first Interim Director General of the International Solar Alliance, the brain child of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide a dedicated international platform for cooperation among solar resource rich countries.

A retired IAS officer of the Karnataka cadre, Tripathy served in the government for over 36 years. Before his stint at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, he served as Adviser in the Indian Embassy in Belgium, Luxembourg and at the European Union in Brussels. He was also Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat.

In Karnataka, he worked in various sectors such as land administration, agriculture, horticulture, rural development, environment, education and transportation. He did his Masters in Public Administration from the Carleton University, Ottawa, and is a recipient of Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration in the individual category for 2009.

In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, Tripathi spoke on the future of solar energy and India’s role in the international solar energy sector Excerpts:

Q: The Centre has been giving huge subsidies to promote renewable energy. The Economic Survey 2018 has suggested revisiting “subsidies and incentives being given to the renewable energy sector”. How do you look at it? Is it the right time to stop subsidies in solar sector?

A: Where is the question of subsidy now, subsidy was there when production cost per unit was Rs 10, or may be when it was Rs 8 per unit or Rs 6 per unit. At present, solar costs us much less than conventional thermal power plants. Now it is reverse subsidy. NTPC is going for more and more solar.

NTPC says their solar cost is around Rs 2.50 a unit whereas production cost from coal is Rs 3.24 per unit. They have come out with an interesting idea, they are planning to go for solar from 6 a.m. till evening. That way they would be saving Rs 0.74 a unit.

Another example is Delhi Metro, use of solar energy on rooftops has increased their profit. After they were finished with the rooftops, they went to Madhya Pradesh to purchase power at around Rs 3 a unit. Even after paying an additional tax of about Rs 60 a unit, power is still cheaper.

They are purchasing power from discoms at around Rs 9 a unit. Today it makes sense to go for solar. The more solar you use the more profit you make.

Q: Getting land for solar plants is a big problem. Do you think we have a sufficient land bank to meet the increasing production capacity?

A: We have large tracts of waste land. Believe me in the desert region where land had virtually no value, it has become gold for its owners. I spoke to my batchmate in Rajasthan. He said solar has fundamentally changed the land value in Rajasthan. Useless land has become prime land these days.

Take Karnataka, from Tumakuru to Pavagada, hundreds of kilometres of land is lying waste. Now you go to farmers in this region, you would find they are getting annual lease rent of Rs 25,000 per acre from solar companies that have installed solar plants.

Power plants are not purchasing land, they are instead taking it on lease for Rs 25,000 per acre with an assurance of 3 per cent annual increase. This is a big gain.

Farmers are making money out of nothing by leasing wasteland. Similar innovative agreements are also pouring in from different parts of the country.

Q: It is said that solar power plants are under distress due to lowering of tariff. And the low price might adversely hurt the promotion of solar industry.

A: There could be some issues relating to PPAs (power purchase agreements) which were signed at higher rates. Lowering of solar prices has put some distress on old solar power projects as discoms are pressing for renegotiation.

But at the same time if you look at bad loans of Rs1 lakh crore recently written off, not even a single bad loan is from the renewable energy sector. Subsidy or no subsidy, more and more companies are opting for solar power plants as it makes business sense to them to go for solar.

Q: India’s solar sector is increasing exponentially. However, we are still not self-reliant in production of solar panels, solar inverters and other solar fitments. We are even importing solar pumps. What more do you think India should do to lead the world in the solar energy sector?

A: There is an issue with domestic production. We have already written to the Cabinet secretary to hold a review meeting and discuss how to promote Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ initiative in the solar sector. Initiatives have been taken and it would soon show results.

The huge demand for solar street lights, solar pumps and other applications would hit the market soon and India would get volume to produce these applications and bring down its price. We are talking help of EESL (Energy Efficiency Services Ltd), through mass procurement tendering. It has managed to bring down the cost of LED bulbs by almost 80 per cent. We are expecting the same in appliances of solar applications.

Q: After the formation of International Solar Alliance, what is India doing to promote solar energy in the 121 member countries? How do you think it would help India to lead the world in solar technologies?

A: The vision and mission of the ISA is to provide a dedicated platform for cooperation among solar resource rich countries. It could make a positive contribution to assist and help in achieving the common goals of increasing the use of solar energy in a safe, convenient, affordable, equitable and sustainable manner.

There was no body in place to address the specific solar technology deployment needs of solar resource rich countries located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Most of these countries are geographically located for optimal absorption of the Sun’s rays. These countries have large agrarian populations and face gaps in the potential solar energy manufacturing eco-system.

International Solar Alliance (ISA) is conceived as a coalition of solar resource rich countries to address their special energy needs and will provide a platform to collaborate on addressing the identified gaps through a common, agreed approach. It will not duplicate or replicate the efforts of other international renewable energy agencies, but will establish networks and develop synergies with them and supplement their efforts in a sustainable and focused manner.

Q: How will ISA help its member countries to build solar infrastructure? And what are your future plans?

A: ISA has shortlisted five main programmes to help its 121 countries. First, it would promote solar applications with special emphasis on solar pumps, street lights and home lighting systems, which are linked to the conditions of poor, farmers. We are trying to bring together member countries and install 500,000 more solar pumps, 50 lakh street lights, 500 MW mini grids and other similar applications.

If all goes well, it would be the biggest initiative the world over. Bangladesh has already sought 50,000 solar pumps, Uganda 30,000 solar pumps and India would install 100,000 pumps. Many countries would follow subsequently. The idea is not only to give pumps but also to train farmers in their maintenance, make them understand the cropping pattern.

The second programme is financing solar projects. ISA is targeting mobilising US $1000 billion to build solar infrastructure for its member countries by 2030. We had urged nine multinational banks to finance at competitive rates to bring down costs. We are also trying to generate a US $1 billion fund by 2018, which can be used to insure solar projects in politically troubled countries.

ISA is also developing common standards, protocols for testing, monitoring, verification and certification, setting up common training courses and e-learning for stakeholders. ISA is trying to involve the corporate sector through CII and Ficci for investment flow in ISA member countries.