‘Huge amount of investment needed to meet 1.5 degree goal’: Ajay Mathur

Updated on Aug 27, 2021 10:12 AM IST

We will achieve our 40% target there is no question about it, said Ajay Mathur, director general of International Solar Allianc, in conversation with HT's Jayashree Nandi

Ajay Mathur, director general of International Solar Alliance.
Ajay Mathur, director general of International Solar Alliance.
ByJayashree Nandi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

India is inching closer to achieving one of its goals under the Paris Agreement that of having 40% of its electric power from renewable sources by 2030, Ajay Mathur, director general of International Solar Alliance tells HT’s Jayashree Nandi in an interview. He said India will possibly do more than that with major boost in development of battery storage facilities in the next few years but coal power will continue to be a large source of electricity generation till 2040s and that the 1.5 degree goal may be impossible without carbon capture and storage facilities or extremely large investments in clean technologies globally. Edited excerpts:

How far are we from achieving one of our targets under the Paris Agreement of having 40% of electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030?

Today we are at 33-34% that’s pretty close to 40%. However, one of the things that I would like to stress is that India’s internal targets of achieving 100 GW of solar and 60 GW of wind by 2022 and then the 450 GW by 2030 will take us way beyond the 40% target. It’s quite possible that in 2040 not just 40% of capacity but 40% of energy generation will come from renewable energy sources.

What are the challenges in achieving our renewable energy targets?

There is a challenge. We will achieve our 40% target there is no question about it. But if we want to keep growing the challenge is the price of electricity from renewable energy round the clock has to be less than fossil fuel energy. Solar is available round the day when the sun is shining but the largest demand for electricity occurs in the evening... What is important is that cost effective storage is available well before 2030... this will happen between 2022 and 2025. Because Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) had put out tenders for round-the-clock electricity from renewable energy... This is not to say that fossil fuel-based electricity will come to zero but the additional electricity will come from renewables plus batteries.

How much of our electricity capacity is from solar and what is the growth trajectory like?

In 2015, when we pledged our goals before the UN Paris Conference, less than 5% of the electricity was from solar and wind combined. Today, solar alone is around 11% and in the years to come solar plus wind plus large hydro plus nuclear will be 40% if we are able to meet the cost curve...We are expecting a doubling of 11% from solar to 22 to 24% in 2030.

Many countries are pledging a net zero emissions goal by mid-century. Is that a feasible goal and are there foolproof intermediate plans to achieve it?

We need to be sure that technologies are available for zero CO2 in all sectors not just power... So, the question is will we have cost effective technologies by 2030? That is the only way you can be net zero by 2050...A large number of resources will have to be invested by every country to enable net zero to occur. Net zero goal is based on two assumptions: that we have technologies and they are cost effective and second, that countries are politically willing to put in resources that are needed to offset the emissions that occur even at that time...

Despite our progress in renewable energy, coal mines are being auctioned, thermal plants continue to supply a major chunk of electricity and PM Modi during his Independence Day speech said India will be a large gas based economy? Why so? Will coal continue to be a major energy source for us?

Coal will continue to be a major source of electricity for the next ten years, may be even longer... I think the goal of the auctions is to replace coal that is imported and replaced by coal produced in India. In the net, there will be no increase in the amount of coal used in India. Already we have had four years when no new financial approvals for new coal capacity have occurred. Coal will however continue to be a major energy source possibly into the 2040s because we have existing coal mines and coal plants which will still be competitive and the total electricity we get from solar and solar plus batteries will be limited capacity. Coal demand and production will still be there but beyond 2027-2028 or around that time it will not grow any further.

The latest IPCC report seems to suggest the 1.5 degree warming goal is nearly impossible. Is that goal still alive?

The 1.5 degree goal is impossible to achieve unless there is very large net extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. We need very large CO2 sinks like large carbon capture and storage technologies or large afforestation programs only then 1.5 degree is possible. Otherwise realistically speaking, we do not have cost effective technologies and therefore a huge amount of investment will be needed to meet the 1.5 degree goal. I don’t see that kind of political appetite for that kind of investment in almost any country in the world. It had been thought that by 2020 there will be a large number of carbon capture and storage facilities. There are two facilities that are working. Price estimates suggest they cost around 30 to 80 dollars per tonne of CO2 so the technologies are very expensive. The geology for CCS is also very specific. So, it is restrictive.

What have been ISA’s achievements in furthering solar energy capacity globally?

ISA is about enabling solarisation across the world. Solar will become the energy source of choice if it's easily doable, if it creates jobs and if getting money for doing it is comparatively easier as compared to getting money for doing fossil fuel-based projects. What ISA does is three things--first is looking at how we are able to capture the information on the progress that is happening in solar. We are giving out annual progress reports on solar technologies; solar investments and solar markets. This year, we will do these assessments for 98 countries. The second is if you need to do this you will need people and systems. You need human, institutional and financial capacity. We bring out a number of training programs across the cycle for bankers, policymakers and others. The other point is how do we bring money into it? A vast amount, 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. Clearly, the interest rate at which you borrow money becomes very important. Our focus is how do we create this risk mitigation and readiness. We are starting off by creating a blended finance facility—first it is for Africa and then we will expand it for Asia and Latin America. This is going to be a $700million facility which is going to provide risk finance and readiness capital.

Solar rooftop projects haven’t picked up in a big way in Indian cities yet. Why?

There are two major issues with solar rooftop projects. Electricity utilities are needed to commit to buying excess solar electricity generated by households and to supplying the electricity when households need it. Households need it at night so distribution companies will have to commit to generating companies that if we had solar roof tops, we would get electricity at night. That when I have excess electricity, they will buy it, which is typically in the afternoon when the company has too much electricity in hand. If it has to buy the electricity that I generate at the price at which it sells electricity, then it’s incurring a loss. So, distribution utilities have been extremely hesitant in providing full support to net metering facilities. Second problem relates to physical infrastructure. Bidirectional meters needed but they are still limited. Transformers also have to enable distribution. It will take time to develop physical infrastructure.

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