Navigating the currents: India’s pursuit of energy self-sufficiency amidst global dependencies

By Ali Imran Naqvi, CEO of Gensol Group
India’s cumulative installed solar capacity now sits at 81.8GW. Image: Gensol Solar Group

India’s energy sector is at a pivotal crossroads, reflective of a global narrative that pits the urgency of climate action against the inertia of established systems. The country’s pursuit of self-sufficiency in solar faces the headwinds of entrenched coal dependency and the fluctuating waves of international market forces. This juxtaposition forms the core of India’s energy paradox – the need for rapid industrial growth fuelled by coal, contrasted with the aspiration to lead in the renewables domain.

The plot thickens with the tale of solar auctions, where the number of bidders has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, signalling a steady, if cautious, interest from foreign investors. These developers, while enthusiastic about India’s solar potential, bid intermittently, indicative of a guarded strategy amidst the changing currents of international policies and market dynamics. The pattern of bidding tells a story of global players weighing the benefits of India’s solar market against the risks inherent in any transition of such scale.

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Amidst this, India’s technological catch-up in solar module manufacturing comes into sharp relief. The nation’s manufacturers, trying to wean off older tech imports, must leapfrog to the frontiers of innovation to capture a piece of the growing renewable pie. This leap is made more arduous by the fact that India’s solar sector, while accelerating, still reels under the shadow of a coal-dominated energy supply. This reliance on coal is a testament to the nation’s escalating power demands, with peak demand surging by more than 10% in 2023 alone.

There’s a glimmer of hope in this complex narrative. The recent surge in solar capacity auctioned – a commendable 16.1GW in 2023 – shows the potential scale of India’s renewable ambitions. The story, however, is nuanced by the underlying data: new coal projects are expected to be commissioned in 2024, a stark reminder of the country’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels. The forecasted growth in coal capacity, potentially reaching 7GW in 2024 due to a robust 18GW pipeline, illustrates the tension between India’s developmental imperatives and environmental commitments.

What emerges is a portrait of a nation striving to balance its energy portfolio. India is navigating this duality with an eye on both short-term energy security and long-term sustainability goals. It’s a balancing act that demands not only steadfast policy and innovation, but also active engagement from international partners. These partners, while currently dipping in and out of the solar auctions, play a crucial role in technology transfer and investment, shaping India’s ability to truly harness its solar potential.

In stitching together the various threads from the solar supply chain, technology adoption and the coal conundrum, the narrative crystallises around a central theme: transition is a marathon instead of a sprint. India’s story underscores the broader global challenge – how to rapidly decarbonise while meeting the immediate needs of growing economies.

To script a future where the sun’s energy is maximised and coal’s impact minimised, India must harness political will, innovation and international cooperation. The tale is still unfolding, and the world watches keenly, for India’s path will illuminate possibilities and pitfalls for emerging economies grappling with similar challenges. This is a story of modern development, of a nation wrestling with the dynamics of global dependence while seeking the sovereignty of self-sufficiency in energy.

India’s solar ambitions: the tightrope walk of self-reliance and global dependency

In the quest for clean energy, India’s solar industry is at a pivotal juncture. The country is striving to localise its solar supply chain, yet it remains tethered to international imports, dominated by Chinese suppliers. This delicate balance raises questions about India’s ability to achieve its onshoring goals while navigating the complex interplay of technological advancements and international trade dynamics.

The narrative begins with solar wafers, the thin slices of semiconductor material that form the building blocks of solar cells. China has tightened its grip on this essential supply, being India’s dominant producer and supplier, which saw a spike in imports hitting $120 million in 2023. Representing 97% of the world’s wafer manufacturing capacity, China’s suppliers are not just leading but also evolving, offering top-tier technology and benefiting from economies of scale.

India’s reliance does not end with wafers. The silver paste, another crucial component for manufacturing solar cells, is entirely imported, with China, Taiwan and Singapore as the main suppliers. This reliance underscores a significant challenge—silver paste is not only expensive but also critical, accounting for about 7% of module cost.

Moreover, the technology adopted by India’s solar manufacturers also lags. Despite the push for domestic production, Indian makers are still importing cells based on older technology. The global market, meanwhile, has moved towards more efficient cells with higher numbers of busbars, the conductive strips in solar cells that play a vital role in efficiency. India’s slow adoption of this evolving technology could stifle its ambitions, as project developers may prefer to import more advanced and thus more cost-effective equipment.

The Indian solar sector is at a crossroads where aspiration meets reality. To establish a fully vertically integrated domestic supply chain, India will need to navigate a complex array of factors: from the continued reliance on foreign technology and raw materials to the need for substantial investment in research and development, as well as policy frameworks that promote self-sufficiency without eschewing the benefits of global trade and cooperation.

If India is to truly harness the power of the sun, it must build bridges between the present reliance on imports and the future of a self-sustaining solar industry. Only by committing to technological innovation, bolstering domestic manufacturing capabilities and crafting strategic trade policies can India hope to achieve its laudable goal of a greener and self-reliant future in solar energy production. The clock is ticking, and the solar rays wait for no one.

Ali Imran Naqvi is CEO of Gensol Engineering, a solar engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company based in India.

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