“We have a vision for a world with solar at the very heart of the energy system”

Sonia Dunlop, CEO of the Global Solar Council

In the third of his solar series for elemental, Dr Seb Berry talks to Sonia Dunlop, the new CEO of the Global Solar Council.

Dunlop emphasises the huge new opportunities opening up for this dynamic growing sector and the need for a united global solar voice, and reflects on the lessons from COP 28 and GSCs developing action plan.

You’ve been in the role for only three months. What are your immediate reflections on the scale of the task?

The Global Solar Council has a huge amount of work to do. We have a vision for a world with solar at the very heart of the energy system, not to mention the economic system. We need to unite the entire solar PV industry – at every step of the value chain – amplify its voice and take our seat at the global policy-making table. The scale of the task, both in terms of removing the remaining barriers to solar deployment, and in terms of growing and building up the Global Solar Council as an even bigger, better and more impactful trade association at global level, is huge. Which is why we need as much support from our members as we can get. We are really keen for all globally active companies in the solar PV sector to get in touch and join us as members and help us tell our story better and together at global level tackle those key barriers by lowering the cost of finance, putting grid at the top of the political agenda and standardising training to ease the cost of doing business in solar.

GSC had a major presence at COP28. Do you have any concerns that the very welcome tripling of renewables target may yet be frustrated?

Dubai gave us two big wins: a global tripling of renewables target and the commitment to transition away from fossil fuels. This is the first time the world has ever set a global renewables target, and the first time solar PV was specifically mentioned in a COP negotiated text as a key technology for the energy transition. So all eyes are now on us. With the new Global Renewables Alliance, we and the other renewables are very much stepping into the spotlight and taking centre stage in the UNFCCC climate process now.

I’m glad to say there were well over 30 solar representatives at COP28 Dubai, and we hope even more will join us in Baku and beyond. As an official observer of the COPs we are uniquely positioned to give our members a platform on this most important of global climate stages. And we at Global Solar Council certainly see the tripling target as a floor rather than a ceiling, and think that with low cost finance and investment in grids, storage and green hydrogen, solar can really take off.

GSC staffing levels are relatively small for an organisation with a very wide brief.  In practical terms how are you going to manage expectations?

That’s right – we are a small team with big ambitions, standing on the shoulders of the 4m people around the world who work in solar. We are keen to partner with the International Solar Alliance, the inter-governmental alliance on solar – as well as with big solar PV industry event organisers, news outlets and trade exhibitions. But most of all we want to work with and alongside our members, to help us re-launch and re-vamp the organisation and put us on the path to being better resourced as an industry. We are already heavily involved in SolarPower Europe’s Global Market Outlook, and plan to publish similar reports on different regions during the course of the next years.

The GSC’s goal is to “unite the industry”. In what ways is the global sector disunited and how can GSC address that?

We are in many ways the most political and politicised renewable technology, and we as an industry need to learn from other global industry associations around the world – such as semiconductors in the 1970s and 80s, and our peers in wind over the last 20 years who have built an immensely successful global trade body that is opening markets all over the world. If we build a really strong global association, and if we identify what the global solar PV industry has in common in terms of shared goals and objectives, we will achieve so much more. Of course each region of the world will have its own industrial strategy priorities when it comes to solar PV, storage and all other technologies necessary to the transition. Each company will be competing with its peers on price, quality and more. But the more we can coordinate those industrial strategies into one overarching, practical plan for a global supply chain to get to the 8TW+ of total installed capacity we need by the beginning of the next decade, the better a chance we have of making the global energy transition happen.

Given for example tensions in Europe about the Chinese imports issue, how realistic is the goal of a “global solar sector to speak with one voice”?

Fundamentally, everyone who works in solar wants to increase deployment world wide, remove the barriers to doing business and develop new markets. This is our goal, and this is the key message that we need to shout from the (panelled) rooftops and take to the G20, G7, COPs, World Bank, IMF, IEA and IRENA. That is our job at the Global Solar Council. And we need to work with our members in every part of the world: APVIA in Asia, MESIA in the Middle East, the Smart Energy Council across Australasia, and many, many more.

You’ve said that solar can be delivered “insanely fast”.  It can of course, but on the other hand grid issues are a really major barrier to fast delivery. How can this key issue be addressed?

Solar is incredibly fast to deploy and that is part of why it is so critical to the climate challenge, where we are in a race against time.

Grid is indeed a huge challenge. In developed countries, it’s about grid capacity, at transmission scale and distribution scale in terms of smart export (important not to forget about the latter). Solutions also include storage, load shifting, smart grids and flexible demand. Solar can play its part in providing grid services too, and can arguably do it better than conventional power plants.

In developing countries, the grid question is completely different. It is a question of minigrids or standalone in off-grid communities, or extending the grid to larger communities and utility-scale solar in what I would call “near grid” communities.

Now that we have the global tripling target, there is real potential for a global government and industry initiative on adapting grids for renewable integration, and we are planning to work closely with the Green Grids Initiative, the Renewables Grid Initiative, the Desertec Industrial Initiative, India’s One Sun One World One Grid, China’s GEIDCO and the Global Renewables Alliance to make this happen.

GSC already has an impressive list of regional associations as members and a few big country trade associations. How important is it to build on that quickly?

We represent both solar companies active in the field and national and regional trade associations from all over the world. Like all global trade bodies, we were founded by associations and are now moving into having more and more business members who are keen to get involved. In just the last weeks we have had SMA and Orisun join, as well as the solar association of Paraguay APES. If you are a business in the solar sector active globally, or looking to expand, we are keen to hear from you. We can help make sure your firm have the best possible chance of success in whichever market you are hoping to go into.

What does a typical week in your working life looks like?

Last week I spoke to the solar associations of Chile, Mexico, Australia and the UK, and solar companies in Germany and Spain. I met the International Hydropower Association and the Global Alliance for Sustainable Energy. I went to see the Solar Media team who run PV Tech to talk to them about the main challenges we are facing as an industry. I have committed to speak to every single member of the Global Solar Council – and many more who are thinking about joining – by the beginning of March. Being based in London means I am lucky to be in a time zone that allows me to speak to both East Asia and the Americas on a daily basis.

This year I am planning to travel to Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Washington DC, Delhi, Abu Dhabi, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, New York, Munich, Sao Paolo and of course Baku for COP29. The only challenge is my two children at home in London, but they love it. They can’t stop telling anyone they meet that “Mama organises all the solar panels in the world” (not an accurate description of course but for a 2 year old it’s not bad!), and excitedly point out any and every solar panel they see.

We also have a great team in Alyssa Pek, our Strategy and Communications Director, from Canada and currently based in Australia. Abdallah Al Shamali, our Policy and Projects Director, is from Jordan and currently based in Berlin – both will also be travelling around the world to India, Chile, the United States, France and more to meet solar associations and companies all over the globe. Between everyone in the team we speak 10 languages and hold almost as many passports. We are hiring for more colleagues to support our business development and growth.

Anything else you’d like to add, including announcements to look out for?

I’m really excited to say that this year we will be unveiling a new Global Solar Council logo and visual identity – and a new strategy and work plan to go with it – all with a fresh new website. So look out for an all new, shiny Global Solar Council coming soon to an inbox near you.