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The International Solar Alliance: Challenges Ahead in Boosting Energy Equity


Author: Gargi Adhikari

Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 04. 2023

The International Solar Alliance (ISA) has come to be forged with a pledge to bolster energy self-reliance of solar-resource-rich countries (‘Suryaputras’) of the world amidst addressing serious concerns for climate change. Given the purpose of this alliance has been to bring about energy equity in the world, through collective resolution of issues towards an increased deployment of solar energy technologies, through financing for relevant technologies, and scaling up of the research in the field, ISA, launched in 2015, is definitely an ambitious project. More than the real prospect of the project, its charm lies in the promise of a vision of a future that is energy rich, hence energy equal. The premise of ISA being initially introduced in countries that are otherwise economically backward, lying fully or partially between the Tropic of Cancer, and Capricorn (countries with considerable and harnessable exposure to sunlight), projects a picture of prosperity that can revolutionise energy dependence, ending the economic crisis in several countries, accomplishing stringer ties between developing countries, may be even changing the course of geopolitics as we understand today (especially with war-ravaged Europe and induced energy crisis in the continent being a reality today). The collaborations pledged by member nations of the ISA include sharing of solar technologies as well as harnessing relevant investments in the field of solar power being a few of the many encouraging initiatives. However, this promise of a glowing future comes laden with the challenges that the deployment of solar technology has been facing irrespective of how bright the sun shines across the world today.

Firstly, even considering the reduction of the cost of solar technology in the current world, geopolitics continue to play an important role in the deployment of this technology across the world with China dominating the solar supply chain. Developing countries, including India have been heavily depended on import of solar tech from China, the vulnerability of which was laid bare by the pandemic pushing solar installations in the country by a few years. In this context, it could be rather premature to expect the Alliance to be cut off from geopolitical susceptibilities altogether. It is rather a susceptibility because reliance on any particular country for a major variable towards the proliferation of equity of any sort is a conundrum that any alliance of the economically strapped must seek to avoid. The contemporary world has too many examples of countries and their economies succumbing to similar vulnerabilities to smart up to (Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Europe inflations being a few of the cases in point). Further, China, which is the world’s largest solar products maker as well as a solar power generator, while being a member of ISA, is yet to ratify it. Further, there has been growing international concern over China’s alleged unfair domestic labour practices and increased competitiveness of solar technologies in countries like the USA, India and Europe in general, which has slowed the country’s dominance in the solar market in recent years. This could help level out the playing field to some extent for more equitable deployment of solar technology in years to come. To what extent that may be, and how much it can equalise the pricing of this technology is also a question that one must seek to answer, especially keeping in mind the fact that ISA seeks to uplift economies that are already vulnerable.

Secondly, the involvement of private companies in the solar investment ecology is something that could be taken with a pinch of salt. In countries with longstanding capitalist economic tradition, organised investment of capital into power production and the treatment of consumers essentially as customers is direct and rather transparent in comparison to developing economies where the relationship has multiple layers to it. In India for example, power production has historically been a public concern where accessibility to electricity has been viewed as a public right. This perspective changes with the introduction of private companies encouraged by profit motives in the mix of power production. There are continuing fault lines within electricity management mechanisms whereby electricity distribution companies (DISCOMS) have faced several hurdles while paying private power suppliers huge prices leading to debts and financial loss. Subsidies have been made available to consumers of power in lieu of rural electrification, irrigation initiatives, energy poverty of consumers, etc. This perspective of power management is hard to get rid of completely, given the economic condition of the consumers, the wage gap, and the ensuing poverty of the teeming masses. Just because one cannot pay for power, does not mean they do not have the right to power. This comes under the larger ambit of energy justice irrespective of the affordability of the consumers. In that case, while on one side there is the chance of investment becoming non-profitable to private companies, on the other hand increase in the production of power makes electricity inaccessible to the consumers. Proliferation of solar power is not free from these considerations in developing economies. How the ISA seeks to deal with the existing perils of the electricity boards and the larger regime of power management needs to be studied in days to come.

Thirdly, land and water usage and ensuing ecological considerations have been a major part of solar power production in developing countries. India could be a case in point in this regard, where out of 57 solar parks commissioned by the government, only about 10 have been operationalised due land acquisition concerns. Given the ISA wants to focus on self-reliant power production in developing countries with a large population, the acquisition of land for solar projects is bound to run into ethical hurdles. While the intention of developing countries like India while acquiring land for land-intensive solar power projects has been to rope in wastelands, what is the definition of a wasteland has come to be a debated perception. Traditional ecology based micro-economies and vulnerable biodiversities with unique ecological value could be existing in sometimes erroneous categorising of wastelands. How the ISA navigates around this very imminent concern of ecological consideration, keeping in mind the fact that the foundation of the project is on climate concerns, forms a very crucial part of the study.

Thus, in conclusion, one cannot look at the ISA divorced from the challenges and problems faced by the international solar ecosystem. Geopolitics and ecological considerations continue to play an important role in not only the conception of the ISA but also the practical implementation of the dream it promises its member nations to achieve in the near future. While there is no cost to a dream, there are however real costs that must be accrued to realise those dreams. ISA needs to adjust its approach to energy justice from the perspective of how being energy rich does not necessarily mean having a gateway to energy equality. Energy equality must be achieved through discussions among stakeholders taking a bottom-up approach to solar proliferation. This article seeks to unfurl only a few of these concerns of the existing solar ecology. What ISA envisions is no wonder revolutionary in promise, but might have to go through the same hoops of resistance that the proliferation of solar power generation faces at any domestic level. Nonetheless, the issues to hold on to in ISA is the creation of a platform that legitimately can act as a forum to discuss these challenges at an international level, with stakeholders involved directly in negotiations and arbitrations. That is a regime current world governance must definitely look up to and hold on to. Further, India’s role in the ISA, given its rich history of playing an active role between the global north and the south, and its current domestic policy of ‘Atmanirbharta’ (encouraging a vision of self-reliance through domestic production of resources and services), might provide a key perspective in strategizing this project essentially from the south. How that transpires eventually is something one must observe in times to come.

(Dr. Gargi Adhikari is an energy analyst and serves as the editor of Energy Review) ■□■

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