Global summits often throw the divide between developed and developing nations into sharp relief. Green energy perhaps ranks only behind healthcare as one of the largest disparities between the global haves and have nots. As world leaders gather, finding a way to improve clean energy access in developing economies will be crucial. It is also likely that solar holds the answers. The question is whether COP26 will be a good conference for solar energy.
Back at COP21 in Paris, India and France agreed to launch the “Green Grids Initiative” as part of the International Solar Alliance. India is expected to make announcements on the project during COP26. Earlier this year in May the UK also agreed to cooperate with India on the project which will help share solar energy via a grid to a wide range of countries – the aim to connect countries in Africa and Asia via India is large and ambitious. It represents a huge vote of confidence in solar technology. The project is backed by $10bn from the World Bank. Success will depend on the ability to negotiate a series of deals, probably starting with a single country to country agreement.
The Green Grids Initiative perhaps also represents an Asian led attempt to resolve energy shortage that reflects the disconnect between Europe on one hand and Asia/Africa on the other. Europeans will be very focused on green hydrogen but may miss the fact that demand is growing fastest away from them in Asia and Africa who are largely left out of partnerships on the technology.
It is estimated that solar irrigation in Sub Saharan Africa is a $12bn opportunity. A recent PV Magazine article stated that Africa has 40% of global solar potential but only 1% of the world’s solar panels. Whilst more finance will help, often the issue is with regulations and a lack of net metering to improve the commerciality of solar supply on the continent. Terje Osmundsen, the CEO of Empower New Energy believes the solution is “to replace the expired CDM (Climate Development Mechanism) with a new, automatic, and unbureaucratic carbon credit for all distributed renewable energies in developing countries.” If something like that at COP26 could be agreed, it would offer a serious boost for solar energy.
Another positive outcome from COP26 would come from recognising the value of rooftop solar. Rooftop solar is often overlooked at large scale in favour of utility scale solutions. However, its impact on developing economies or high-density populations should not be underestimated. Puerto Rico is an interesting case in point; Puerto Ricans currently pay double what mainland Americans pay for energy but renewables account for only 3% of energy supply. It is estimated that Puerto Rico receives four times the sunlight it needs to power itself and that the island could be entirely powered from rooftop solar.
Whilst there are good reasons to be optimistic that solar will be recognised as vital in improving global access to clean energy, there is a concern the sector might be a difficult place. Supply chain issues have caused installation delays, whilst there are concerns about standards in some parts of the supply chain. Analysts are optimistic that global installations will be back on track by the end of 2022, but as much as COP26 might shine on solar, the industry will also need to step up to meet clean energy demand.