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Global Power Grid: How solar energy could electrify Geopolitics in ISA

India is working on a proposal for ‘Global Power Grid’ to be presented in the General Assembly of International Solar Alliance scheduled in New Delhi from October 30 to November 2, 2019. Primarily based on solar energy, the Global Power Grid is aimed to connect some energy-deficient countries of South East Asia. As some countries of South Asia such as Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are already connected to India’s National Power Grid managed by the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL), connecting some countries of South East Asia would not pose any major technical challenge but the decision is more crucial from a geopolitical perspective.

Global Power Grid: How solar energy could electrify Geopolitics in ISA
India has set a target of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022 Image Credit: ANI

As Solar Energy is now being considered as a synonym of 'Clean and Affordable Energy' to fight Climate Change, India is readying a proposal to set up Global Power Grid for the member countries of the International Solar Alliance (ISA). The proposal will be presented for consideration of the member countries in the second General Assembly of International Solar Alliance to be held in New Delhi from October 30 to November 2, 2019. Founded in 2015, the ISA has now 122 countries as its members.

From the perspective of energy, the proposed Global Power Grid is estimated to play a big role in the energy transition of the world particularly in South Asia and South-East Asia. This is because the United Nations in its sustainable development goals (SDGs) for the year 2030 has adopted target-oriented approaches for reducing dependence on fossil fuel and shift to renewable energy sources. In this scenario of the energy transition, solar energy has emerged as the most affordable, efficient and clean source of energy. According to an estimate of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA), the process of transition would be faster in the coming decades and by 2050 the world will get 50% of its energy from renewable energy sources. The independent studies also support the potential of renewable energy to be about 50% of the total global energy consumption by 2050. However, some studies claim that the share of renewable energy in total primary energy supply would rise from 14% in 2015 to 63% in 2050.

The most important is the role of solar energy in reducing carbon emission, as renewable energy combined with the electrification of end-users make up to 94% of the emission reductions. In pursuance to the Paris declaration in 2015, the ISA has also made commitments to undertake joint efforts to reduce the cost of finance, technology and mobilize over US$1000 billion investment in the solar energy sector by 2030.

The 'Global Power Grid' is being seen as a major stride in the direction of a joint effort of ISA countries. As the intensity of the sunlight varies in any country from season to season, the Global Power Grid will ensure a surplus of the solar energy generated in the countries of the high-intensity zone is supplied to the those in the low-intensity zone of the Sun. As the core member countries of the ISA fall between Tropics and Cancer and Capricorn that receive the varied intensity of the Sunlight throughout the year, sustainability in the solar power seems to be the main objective of the Global Power Grid. It could be well achieved by transferring solar power from surplus areas to the deficient areas in the summer season of the area and vice versa.

As per the plan, the proposed Global Power Grid would first cover South-East Asian countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. "What we are talking about is a grid connection running east to west or west to east as you have it. If you have that, then you don't need any storage because the Sun is always shining somewhere," said R. K. Singh, India's Minister for Power and Renewable Energy. He also did not mince the words in highlighting the Geopolitical importance of the ambitious proposal. "SAARC minus Pakistan interconnectivity is going to be a reality. It will take time. We already have electricity grid connectivity with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh," he added.

Geopolitical Perspective

As the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has been practically abandoned since 2016, India is cautiously and strategically moving towards forging new alliances and groups in South Asia (SA) and South East Asia (SEA) minus Pakistan.

The BIMSTEC is fast emerging as the alternative for SAARC among the South Asian and South-East Asian countries because for all the practical purposes this new group simply means infrastructural development minus problems created by Pakistan. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a study in 2014, identified 167 projects in the transport and communication sector with the potential of US$ 45-50 billion investment. Besides the huge infrastructural investment committed by India in various sectors, international organizations are also liberally funding development projects in the region. In a very short span of time, the BIMSTEC has made strides in the region which were next to impossible for SAAC only because Pakistan persistently created hurdles and continued supporting terrorism. But ISA's geopolitical importance and potential are beyond Pakistan.

Initially, the membership of ISA was allowed to only the countries having sufficient scope of solar energy i.e. the countries which either lie completely or partly between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn but now its membership is open for all the members of the United Nations but voting rights. Now as ISA has emerged one of the strongest global association in the leadership of India, it has enhanced the geopolitical stature of India in Asia particularly before China. If milked properly, ISA will help India to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia, South East Asia and African countries.

Furthermore, with Global Power Grid, the ISA will have the potential to rise at the level enjoyed by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the 20th Century or more. This is because, by 2050, the process of the energy transition will be at its peak and contributing about 50% of the total global energy consumption.

Technical Feasibility and Security Concerns

Presenting her maiden budget as the first full-time women Finance Minister of India Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about the setting of a National Grid in the country. Some greenhorns in the energy sector found this idea very innovative and even questioned technical feasibility.

A skin-deep analysis reveals that there was nothing new in the statement of the minister as she was simply reciting what is being implemented by the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL) for over a decade. According to PGCIL portal, the idea of the national grid or 'One Nation, One Grid' was first floated in the last decade of the 20th century. In the 1960s, almost every state has its own grid. These grids were then integrated into the form of five regional grids – Northern, Eastern, Western, North Eastern, and Southern region. In 1991, the North Eastern and Eastern grids were connected and by December 31, 2013, India had already achieved the vision of – One Nation- One Grid- One Frequency.

The PGCIL is now working on Smart Grid with a view to facilitate efficient and reliable end-to-end intelligent two-way delivery system from source to sink through the integration of renewable energy sources, smart transmission and distribution. "In this way, Smart Grid technology shall bring efficiency and sustainability in meeting the growing electricity demand with reliability and best of the quality," said PGCIL.

The cross border trade of electricity is also not new for India as it was started in the 1980s with supplying electricity from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh grids to Nepal and Bhutan. In 2017, India became a net exporter of electricity with Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh being the major clients. Besides, PGCIL claims its presence in 19 countries of Asia and Africa.

However, the integration of grids was not without hiccups and bad news. India suffered the biggest power blackout of the history as Northern Grid collapsed on July 30, 2012, and on next day three regional grids – Northern, East and North East - collapsed. The PGCIL claims to have taken several precautionary measures and introducing technical protocols to avoid any further incident that occurred seven years back.

According to PGCIL, by the end of 2017, India has the total inter-regional transmission capacity of about 75,050 MW which is estimated to reach about 1,18,050 MW by 2022.

Global Power Grid: The Way Ahead

If approved by the members of ISA, the Global Power Grid will soon become a reality as India's PGCIL already has almost all the technical expertise to execute the project. As the country is already executing several projects in the South-East Asian countries under the BIMSTEC, the approval of Global Power Grid by the General Assembly of ISA would not face any major hurdle. However, the production of high-efficiency solar modules is still a challenge for India as it primarily depends on import for solar panels. Given the amount of investment in solar energy – this is going to emerge as a mega sector in terms of job creation in solar panel manufacturing industries, installation, servicing, solar electricity, grid management, and solar power supply etc.

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(Siddheshwar Shukla is Associate Editor with Devdiscouse)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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