Director General, International Renewable Energy Agency: India is working well on phasing out coal, must focus on existing programs
India’s efforts to increase renewable energy capacity have all but reduced the use of coal, Francesco La Camera, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, told Karunjit Singh. He added that the country should seek to bolster existing renewable energy programs to accelerate its transition. Edited excerpts:
Q. At COP26, there seemed to be an emerging view on phasing out coal. Have you had discussions about this with the government?
A: I think that if we put this discussion aside for a moment, what we have seen is that the Indian government is putting in place the policies that will allow us to get out of coal. It cannot be done by simply shutting down the factory. It has to be done through proper policies and I think the main thing is to decarbonize the heavy sector. So, on that, we noticed and appreciated the construction of this hydrogen mission, which can be very important for decarbonizing the heavy sector. Last year, India was able to add an additional 13 gigawatts of renewable energy. We have seen that it is the fourth country in the world, if we consider the installation of renewable energy capacity. And we saw there that they are raising the ambition (of renewable energy capacity) from 450 to 500 gigawatts by 2030. So there’s a lot of evidence that India is moving in that direction … India is a complex reality, it is a continent. It is therefore very difficult to act and we can see that the government is doing its best to move things in the right direction.
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Q. What are your views on the need for concessional finance to boost renewable energy capacity in developing countries?
A: I think the system is able to get the money they need. Then, of course, there is the complexity of going faster. But we don’t see financial problems as an obstacle to India’s energy transition. They have been able to set up a legal environment favorable to future investments. Just look at how active foreign companies are in trying to get India’s new hydrogen market. We are therefore quite optimistic about the country’s ability to attract the necessary financial resources. Of course, there is also an important role for the public and then the financial concessional loan program. We also illustrated our initiative on the climate investment platform on financing the energy transition accelerator, which can facilitate the arrival of money and be effective in the country. But, again, if you ask me what the general opinion is on this, I think India has no problem attracting the financial resources it needs because it is a very important market.
Q. To what extent is the variability of renewable energies in the energy transition a barrier?
A: Of course, the variability of energy or renewable energy in the old energy system can be a problem because the networks are not flexible or are not interconnected. That’s the concern. We also need to be very clear that in the old energy system, with the grid as it is now made up of renewables, 35%, 40% or 45% can be in the system without creating problems. When we want to go further, beyond this threshold, it is important that the network is adapted to ensure the necessary flexibility and connectivity. And, where the role of hydroelectricity, batteries, hydrogen — because hydrogen could also be used as seasonal storage. All of these elements must come together and work together for the system to work smoothly. So, naturally, the variability is there, but it is not a characteristic that can slow down the development of renewable energies if we adapt the current networks and system. I would also like to point out that this is not just an additional cost linked to the energy transition. Because the demand is increasing and the network must be renewed and expanded anyway. So just for that to happen so that the system can be upgraded to become more modern, to allow more other energies to come into the system.
Q. What are the policy recommendations for India for energy transition?
A: More than focusing on one or two areas, I say they need to strengthen what they do. Because, in my opinion, they are fine. Of course, again, everyone needs to do more. But they work on the grid. They understood how relevant hydrogen could be. They will come with a hydrogen mission, with a card which will perhaps allow them to have more hydrogen. So they are working to decarbonize the heavy sector. They are working to export green hydrogen. They also focus on biorefineries because bioenergy will be one of the other elements and would be relevant in the new energy system… So all of those elements are all together there. They must therefore go now to reinforce the line of work which they follow. This is at least our assessment resulting from the work that we are doing, our analysis of India.
Q: Are developing countries concerned that growing reliance on batteries will lead to reliance on a few countries for rare earth minerals?
A: It’s a good concern, but it’s not an inevitable obstacle. In what sense, first of all, they are called minerals and rare earths but geologically they are not rare. Thus, one of the first aspects is to put in place the right policies to ensure more mining in a sustainable and environmental way. Another aspect is that we can reduce the demand for these minerals and rare earths through innovation and this is already happening. Third, these minerals are recyclable. So the circular economy is also important to reduce demand and avoid dependence on these minerals and rare earths… What is important is that the concern is there and that policies must be put in place which can avoid falling into addictions. But I think the experience of the past few years is very clear in everyone’s mind, and countries are working on it. We don’t see this as a barrier if the right circular economy policies are there to manage it.