As the world prepares for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, the stakes have never been higher. The IPCC report, which confirms that the planet is imminently on course for global warming in the next two decades, has demonstrated that the world needs an urgent and comprehensive shift in energy thinking.
Whether in terms of alarming climate impact, its inability to extend energy access and security to energy excluded communities the world over or its high growing financial cost, the overall approach to energy has caused unprecedented harm.
Against this backdrop, never has the economic opportunity from restoring a decarbonised, more stable climate been more compelling, and never have the globe’s political and economic leaders been so united and clear about the mission-critical nature of climate progress.
The COP21 in Paris was marked by positive climate thinking about the unlimited and powerful possibilities of an energy transition, underscored by unprecedented collaboration and partnership. The global leaders came together to launch the International Solar Alliance at COP 21. At COP26, we must invoke the same spirit of relentless climate ambition, which must crystallise in a breakthrough solution that shapes a common climate pathway for countries.
A clear pathway
This pathway is clear: a global investment of dramatic scale to fuel a solar revolution, thereby offering the world its single best chance at building a new, secure, affordable, and clean energy future in Glasgow. Solar energy checks off the boxes that nations consider in energy and sustainability planning: cost, ability to scale, net socioeconomic and sustainability impact, and resilience against future events.
Since Paris, the cost of photovoltaic electricity has fallen by 60%, while global solar capacity has tripled in growth, from 221GW to 715GW. In 2019, 45% of new global generating capacity added was solar, and one-third of all countries made solar their top choice. According to the BloombergNEF, solar energy’s share of world electricity generation will increase by a full order of magnitude by 2030. Solar energy’s use-cases have confirmed that it can play a transformational role.
In Chile, cutting edge concentrated-solar thermal generation is poised to replace fossil power, thereby positioning the nation as an energy exporter. Morocco, once North Africa’s biggest energy importer, is headed for a grid that is 40% renewable powered, as well as the world’s largest fleet of concentrated solar power (CSP). Australia has witnessed the world’s highest uptake of solar energy and one in four homes here now has a solar rooftop, on the back of attractive economics.
Developing countries in Asia and Africa are also deploying solar to enable farmers to avoid the polluting, expensive and unreliable fossil fuel power. India, which recently achieved 100GW of installed renewable capacity largely led by solar, is set to exceed its Paris Treaty commitment — of having 40% of its electric power from renewable sources by 2030 — and is the only major emitter to do so.
Fostered by political will, market forces in India have brought down the price of utility-scale solar to a world record low of Rs. 1.99 per unit, despite relatively high costs of solar capital.
Ability to adapt solar
Unlike fossil fuels, the ability to adapt solar for any purpose — from solar water pumps to individual rooftops to micro-grids to serving gigawatts of demand at a powerful cost advantage — makes it ideal for any use case. There is thus a strong commercial sense in harnessing solar in ways that meet local socioeconomic needs, whether it means stand-alone solar-powered appliances across a region or a solar farm.
Wherever it goes, solar swiftly transforms the local environment, creates green jobs, and gives beneficiaries access to clean, reliable energy that bridges them with their aspirations.
But bringing solar to beneficiaries faces two challenges. First, the need for upfront financing of a solar asset, whether a panel or a mini grid, creates an initial, sizeable cost barrier. According to a Bloomberg NEF estimate, India will need more than $500 billion in solar capital to achieve its target of 450GW of installed renewable energy.
Second, around 95% of the cost of electricity generated from renewable energy — even with storage — is based on the capital cost as opposed to fossil fuels where only 50% is based on the capital cost, creating the need for cheap and risk-proof solar financing. Solar will become the energy source of choice if it is easier to opt for it as compared to financing fossil fuel-based projects.
The International Solar Alliance, in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, is developing a Solar Investment Action Agenda and Road map to help mobilise $1 trillion of investment for the essential deployment of solar energy by 2030.
The Solar Investment Action Agenda, to be launched at COP26, will outline replicable pathways for rapidly scaling the delivery of financial mechanisms to meet solar technology needs in different countries. These efforts are aimed at an eventual goal — the creation of a common global solar grid to ensure steady, uninterrupted energy generation and transmission.
As evidenced by success in countries like Germany — whose energy grid partnership with Nordic countries has enabled both to enjoy greener energy access — energy grids offer the win-win paradigm to countries who seek an energy transition. The abundance of solar energy unlocked will obviate the need for carbon sequestration and storage, an additional investment to achieve the net-zero trajectory that the IPCC asks for.
It will also create millions of new future-proof jobs in the new green economy. That the 2030 Solar Investment Agenda runs parallel to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the widely adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), acknowledges that the SDGs need the kind of energy access, sustainability, and affordability that only solar offers.
The global energy transition is in motion. Governments are implementing aggressive energy reforms, investment portfolios are becoming greener, and the flow of political will and green financing has never been higher. Technological breakthroughs and cost efficiencies in battery storage and output have put solar on the ascendant.
What is needed is a global common consensus that only by working together can humanity unlock the benefits of solar at a scale that can counter the climate crisis that we as a species face without it. Nothing less than a far-reaching solar revolution will do the job.
Dr Ajay Mathur is the Director General of International Solar Alliance