Workers install solar cell panels on the roof of a private company's parking lot in Thailand. Photo: Chanat Katanyu / Bangkok Post via AFP

“Code Red” is how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned humanity when it came out with its sixth Assessment Report on August 9. Nation-states across the globe have responded to the doomsday prediction with claims of working toward reducing their carbon emissions.

The spotlight has indeed been put on alternative sources of energy, with the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, calling for a complete eradication of further investment in fossil fuels and transferring all future capital into renewable sources. This has elevated the necessity and importance of solar energy across the world.

The solar industry, for a period of time, has enjoyed the tag of an emerging technology, but the significance of the IPCC report has pushed it to the forefront of critical technologies. This is where India, as a responsible global power advocating clean energy, can play a leadership role.

Funding and capital

India, jointly with France, in 2015 spearheaded the formation of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), to which more that 200 countries now are signatories. A number of Southeast Asian states, including Cambodia and Brunei, have signed up for the forum. The alliance has said it is committed to facilitating solar infrastructure and increasing accessibility of solar-powered technologies across borders.

This is where India’s role, as a founding member of the ISA, can be to get investments from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to fund solar projects across Southeast Asia, which has immense solar capacity.

The World Bank has already entered an agreement with the ISA to help raise US$1 trillion in investments for projects across the globe by 2030. India can dedicate some of this capital to setting up major infrastructure projects in the region.

The ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (2021-2025) has set a lofty goal of achieving a renewable energy supply of 23% of the total in the region by 2025.

With its traditional backers like China and South Korea moving slowly on renewables, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ vision should be a sign for India to play an active role in driving investments and collaborating to set up trans-border solar projects.

‘Sunshine countries’

When the ISA was created, invitations were given to all nation-states lying in the Torrid Zone, between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, to join the alliance. This is because geographically these “sunshine countries” receive the highest levels of sunlight throughout the year, which can be harnessed.

The entirety of the Southeast Asian region lies in the Torrid Zone, which makes it ideal for the solar industry. Several of these states have made leaps in the solar-power domain, having pushed through initiatives such as the idea of a floating solar farm in Singapore and massive rooftop solar installations in Vietnam.

Indeed, India and Vietnam are ranked among the top five states in the world in terms of solar capacity.

With immense potential in the region and the states themselves playing an active role in pushing through solar infrastructure projects and renewable-energy legislation, this is a perfect opportunity for India to tie up with these like-minded states to ensure that there is adequate utilization of the region’s capacity as a whole.

Labor and materials

South and Southeast Asia are home to some of the up-and-coming manufacturing hubs looking to replace China as the next favored destination for international firms. Bangladesh, Vietnam and Thailand are just some examples of countries with a cheap and efficient labor force. Human resources are abundant in the region, and should be taken advantage of in increasing the manufacturing output of solar cells and panels.

Since the early 2010s, China has dominated the production of solar panels, housing seven to eight of the world’s top 10 solar-panel manufacturing firms. It is imperative that India, with its considerable capital, and the Southeast Asian nations, with their abundant labor, join hands to prevent a technology takeover and reduce their dependencies on a single source.

Solar-panel manufacturing units can be set up by India in these countries, which are already rich in terms of solar capacity and workers, thereby creating a mutually beneficial economic partnership between the two.

Crystalline silicon (cSi) is the current material dominantly used for the manufacturing of solar cells. India and Malaysia are among the world’s largest silicon producers. This can ensure the consistent supply of materials needed for the manufacturing of solar cells and in turn create a solid supply chain of solar technology in the Indo-Pacific region. 

There has been a sobering acceptance on the effects of climate change by all nation-states. The 2021 IPCC Report notes that the Indian Ocean is rising 3-7 millimeters annually, with extreme sea disasters expected to be seen every few years if the dependency on fossil fuels does not decrease. It is in the interest of all parties to chalk out a collaborative effort to harness solar energy as an alternative and sustainable source of energy.

The memories of the 2004 tsunami still ring loud in the Indian Ocean region. India must take up the initiative in bringing the ASEAN states to the solar table in order to mitigate the effects of future natural disasters in the region.

Arjun Gargeyas

Arjun Gargeyas is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think-tank in Bangalore.