pv magazine: Can you describe your association with the International Solar Alliance (ISA)? What compelled you to begin the partnership?
Dr. Frank Rijsberman: We’ve collaborated since the start. Ban Ki-moon, President of the Assembly and Chair of the Council of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), was on stage with the Prime Minister of India and the President of France when the ISA was launched in November 2015 on the sidelines of COP 21. As the ISA grew to become a legal international organization, we have maintained that engagement focusing on how we can support that initiative. We have a good overlap of member countries between GGGI and the ISA, particularly in Africa and many island nations. Presently, we are focused on working together on off-grid solar in India, Africa and small island countries. Going forward we plan to engage in a variety of solar energy-based initiatives, such as solar pumping for agriculture.
Were any MoUs signed at the recent ISA summit 2018 held in New Delhi?
We are developing a MoU between GGGI and the ISA. We are constantly in discussion with Upendra Tripathy, interim Director-General ISA, on how we can work together to bring off-grid energy to African countries and small island countries. We believe that India has a lot to offer in its experience in solar energy and a lot of countries are looking forward to getting that experience.
GGGI is a bit more advanced than the ISA, in that we have people on the ground in places like Fiji, for instance, or in Rwanda, Vanuatu, Senegal: the kind of countries where ISA wants to work. We have projects either ongoing or under development in those countries. As we already have these countries as our members, we can help the ISA in quick project rollouts and in scale-up of its operations. In Fiji, for instance, we have two projects aimed at making two islands become 100% renewable with solar + battery. In Vanuatu, we are supporting the country to become 100% renewable as well, primarily through off-grid solar.
The ISA has been formed to hasten solar’s growth in developing and under-developed countries lying between the tropics. What necessary and critical points need to be addressed in these countries for solar growth?
In many cases, the first thing that needs to be addressed is their energy policies. If you want rooftop solar you need some form of net metering, and if you want large scale utility solar you need good power purchase agreement (PPA), and decent feed-in-tariffs (FITs). So, we are seeing that in many of the countries the policy framework is not yet in place. Second, the companies who do these projects in market that are still quite underdeveloped have to contend with risks that are quite high. That is where GGGI can help bring in GCF money to alleviate some of those risk and make it more attractive for private sector companies to invest. Frankly some of the small island countries that are also part of the ISA are just too small for the private sector to invest in, and so they are likely to be more dependent on development aid or grant money. An organization like ours play a role in setting up those projects and making the links between local communities, or the Indian government and the government that needs those projects.
In which sectors and projects are you going to assist and invest in the ISA?
Off-grid solar applications is the key initiative. There are a few other programs that the ISA has linked to, for instance, large procurement strategy (affordable financing). I think that is more for the ISA and France, to see how they can work that out. We are more directly interested in promoting solar projects in the countries that partner with both the ISA and GGGI.
We have 28 member countries and another 20 countries that are becoming members of GGGI. So, we are first looking at the countries that are both interested to be part of the ISA and are already members of GGGI.
Mitigating financing risk to make projects affordable is one of the aims of the ISA. What is your view of this approach?
That is totally overlapping with what we do as well. We visit countries where they still have goals to expand their coal-fired power plants, and we explain to them that by now, as demonstrated in India particularly, solar is cheaper than coal. So, a large part of our activities are to demonstrate to countries that going forward, particularly as the price of batteries also falls, solar is competitive. It used to be that we would go around and say you should not burn fossil fuels, more for environmental reasons. But, particularly as demonstrated in the last couple of years in India, renewable prices are falling so rapidly that it has become an economic decision as well. It is that experience from India we are seeking to copy or export. We are in agreement with the ISA that here is a valuable goal for other countries as well.
In India we see our global team demonstrating that solar is commercially attractive. And in the small islands that are members of the ISA, where the alternative is diesel generation, we are clear from our studies that diesel + batteries is already competitive with the alternative, diesel. But in other countries, the alternatives are cheap energy from coal or gas, and so there it is not as easy; much depends on local circumstances, how much renewables can be observed into the grid and so on.
In ISA’s five programs, two are directly related to the decentralized off-grid sector. Will GGGI will work on these projects for the ISA member countries?
Yes, a number of them. In Vanuatu, in Fiji, in the Pacific, and a number of different islands in Indonesia, there are no ISA member countries yet. But, that is one of our member countries where we have pushed more islands particularly in 2017. One for a new tourism economic zone, so Indonesia has large islands of course but they have a lot of small islands where off-grid energy is now, in our view, a preferred solution. And in other groups of islands, where we were able to put eight of those islands together in a single project, that it becomes big enough for private sector developers to become interested. So, we have been able to introduce directly private sector developer, French firm Engie to set up 15 MW into 8 islands + batteries together, for example.
India, parts of Africa and many island nations lack grid accessibility in remote areas. Industry suggests off-grid energy solutions and also grid extension as a solution, but do these approaches contradict each other? What should be the correct strategy and roadmap to hasten the energy storage sector?
In many African countries, the strategy for the longest time has been that we should expand the grids, with very poor results. That approach has led to average grids in state capitals, but grids still prone to blackouts. Mini-grids can help bring more stability, or more rooftop solar can do likewise even to the existing grids in the capital and the rural areas. Past policies of expanding the grid have been spectacularly unsuccessful; in those circumstances we see real opportunities in off-grid solar. In other countries like India, in fact, expanding the grid has been much more successful, you talk about only where the last relatively small pockets of people who have no grid reach and often in very hard to reach areas, and there indeed off-grid may be a relatively small complementary solution.
But, in many African countries, where the current penetration is 10-20%, that is where we see that we may have to shift strategy – we push for expanding the grid to basically going to either mini-grids or decentralized solar.