Solar power has emerged as the best off-grid option for energy production but it is still all talk and no substance.
In June 2017, Delhi Metro launched its first rooftop solar power plant at Dwarka Sector 21 metro station, which would generate enough energy to meet the requirements of the station. It is the largest rooftop plant in terms of capacity in the national capital region. Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) plans to expand such installations to other stations in order to meet its requirements and reduce its carbon footprint. In Bihar, Patna has the world’s biggest off-grid solar market that does an annual business of Rs 500 crore, thanks to the shortage in power supply of 1,905 MW.
According to 2011 census, there are 10,86,893 households with solar power as the main source of lighting, an increase of 108 percent since 2001. The rural households were the drivers of this growth as 9,16,203 of them had solar power as the main source of lighting. The main reason for such a progress at the rural front is the erratic power supply. In addition, solar power is a better off-grid option than battery-run or diesel-run power. As of 2013, the country had a running capacity of 1.5 GW. Since we still have around 11,64,854 households with no lighting, solar power has a big scope. But is it really that easy?
The brightest spot
With a climate like India’s, many argue solar power as a perfectly feasible source of energy for the country. It receives about 300 days or 2,300-3,200 hours of sunshine every year, which is an incidence of 4-7 kWh/m2 of solar energy, enough to meet consumption requirements. Add to this the ever-increasing prices and decreasing stocks of fossil fuels and solar power seems the best option. In line with the strong solar potential of the country, the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) targets an addition of 10 Giga Watt (GW) in capacity grid-connected solar power, a goal that would be shared between Central and State schemes. “Solar power indeed has a future in the country basically for three main reasons: the rapid advancement of technology, about 60 to 70 percent reduction in cost of equipment and obviously, the great abundance of sunlight in India,” says Abhishek Pratap of Greenpeace India which has prepared a report on Delhi’s rooftop solar potential.
It was in 2008 when the announcement of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (c identified the development of solar power technologies as a “national mission”. One of the most notable government initiatives in the field was the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), launched in two phases in 2010 and 2012, with a third phase to be launched soon. Its targets included 20 GW of solar capacity by 2022, inclusion of around 20,000 villages or hamlets, development of “solar cities”, deployment of 25,000 solar water pumps, solar telecom towers and subsidised solar installations.
However appealing such goals may look on paper, their implementation comes as a daunting task. The JNNSM was caught in shackles during the launch of its first and second phases. Procedural delays along with confusion over details like the sourcing of solar power equipment, domestically or internationally, were coupled with delays in approval from the Union Cabinet. There were also concerns over tariffs and funds. By 2014, out of all the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants funded by the mission, only one, the Godawari Green Energy Project, has been able to start its commercial operation while the Rajasthan Sun Technique plant is scheduled to start soon.
Why it’s not lighting up
The most obvious limitation of solar power is the high price of photovoltaic cells and other related equipment. It requires larger surface areas and installation is profitable mostly when electricity is generated by large, centralised power plants instead of sporadic, decentralised installation on, say, household rooftops, which are difficult to integrate with the grid. In many cases, rooftop installations are subsidised, yet these subsidies remain undelivered and unfair. Installation onto individual rooftops can be a cumbersome and expensive task. For instance, the optimal angle may not always be achieved whereas in a utility, the focus of the structure is primarily profitable power production.
Centralised solar refers to gigantic fields of panels where power is generated similar to commercial fossil-fuel powered plants, transmitted to the existing grid and then distributed to individual users. The problem with centralised production, thus, remains that the users in turn have to bear the cost of transmission and distribution and rely on the old, mouldering grids of the country, not to mention the loss of roughly 30 percent of power.
Let the people sell it
The system of renewable purchase obligation (RPO) has been an elaborate step in solar taken by the ministry in recent times. States must comply with this obligation if they aim to avail funds for financial restructuring of their utilities. The obligation is to buy the set minimum percentage of the total power produced by them from renewable, mostly solar, energy sources. The NAPCC has set a RPO target of 15 percent by 2020, though it seems overly ambitious. The actual compliance with these RPOs has been an issue of concern. Many states have failed to meet their respective targets or in other cases, have adjusted them to their expediency. For instance, to accommodate the interests of organisations, Rajasthan, with all its potential, decreased its target from 8.5 percent to six percent and Tamil Nadu reduced it from 14 percent to nine percent. There is a need for states to step up their vigilance and verification of RPO defaulters; compliance with these targets will be crucial to the progress of solar in India.
Through the inclusion of solar lighting systems, solar water-pumps and other solar-based rural applications, the JNNSM has displayed its inclination towards decentralised power distribution. In fact, one of the primary occupations of its first phase was to develop off-grid systems to the advantage of rural population. Sights of solar panels mounted on streetlights too have become a common sight in some cities. Decentralised distribution of energy may bestow more autonomy at the grassroots level. When the solar system is located at the consumer’s premises, the transmission and distribution costs of centralised generators can be avoided. It would entail more judicious use of land-space (as seen in the use of the rooftop of a metro station), against the hoarding of vast amounts of natural land, possibly habitats and environmental assets. The community, including residential, commercial and industrial users, would generate its own electricity and would be empowered by direct control over what it produces, without adding to the monopolistic power of the centralised suppliers.
“What inhibit our country’s solar sector are the issues at the policy level. There has been lack of policy initiatives by the government and financial incentives are not available, especially in the decentralised sector, which would have helped tremendously in reducing cost,” Pratap says. In 2011, a rooftop solar policy was formulated for Delhi to promote small-scale, decentralised solar power generation, wherein people had the option to either lease their rooftops to developers, or install a system themselves. Not surprisingly, the policy was not implemented despite the subsidies and tax benefits offered by the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy to organisations. And even when support was provided for stand-alone rooftop systems, there was no initiative to get them integrated into the grid, a step that would increase the overall viability of these systems.
The integration would entail a two-way transmission: from the grid to the consumer and from the consumer to the grid. This is the sort of design that was taken up during the Gandhinagar solar rooftop programme that began in 2012, exemplifying the possibility of grid-connected rooftop power generation through a public private partnership. The project is still at a nascent stage with only 150 kW been installed so far. According to a 2013 report by Bridge to India called “Rooftop Revolution”, owners can rent their rooftop spaces to project developers like Azure Power Ltd., the rent acting as a “green incentive” for the owners. This empowers a common property owner to benefit by earning a rent and makes it easier for bigger private utilities to fulfil their RPO requirements. In the bigger picture, with similar models, states can make solar installations more viable and meet their RPO targets more efficiently.
Abhishek Pratap believes both decentralised and centralised power production need to complement each other. “Only depending on decentralised power production would be a mistake, while dependence on centralised solar power production in villages has left many houses without power. For rural and urban household production, decentralisation is the way to go. Hence, it is important to have diversification in ways of producing and a right mix of both production models,” he adds.
The sun pumps
The areas that are worst hit with water shortages often coincide with areas that have no availability of electricity and expensive diesel fuel. In February this year, the government indicated that it will to swap 26 million groundwater pumps with efficient solar-powered systems that are low on operating costs, pollution (including noise), and would save the government diesel and electricity subsidies. Solar irrigation systems have the potential to become the country’s largest solar application but can it be really that efficient?
In Punjab, the granary of India which is spurting maximum quantity of wheat and rice, solar pumps are a non-starter since both these crops require flood irrigation. Vishal Bhandari, who has a farm at Nayagaon village near Chandigarh, got a subsidised solar pump under Central scheme. But he is only cultivating vegetables through drip irrigation. “As compared to 1 cusec water output through conventional motor, solar pump gives only 0.2-0.3 cusec since its capacity is limited to 2 horse power. Also, due to low capacity, it can only pump water from shallow depths which is like lifting water from a small tank. With ground water table dropping consistently, it can never replace the electricity or diesel-run motors,” he says. But in states like Bihar and West Bengal, which have enough groundwater but no power, it’s turning out to be a good option.
In fact, West Bengal also has the maximum number of households being lighted up through solar power, followed by Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan. On the other hand, in prosperous states like Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, power generated through hydel and thermal projects remains the mainstay. In a way, the laggard states have turned the tables on the progressive ones when it comes to solar power.
Such a potential for solar power exists all over India, which if backed with elaborate policy initiatives and pertinent innovations, can position the country as a global leader in energy. Yet lack of proper implementation and willingness of authorities remain as fetters in the way of fulfilling such a dream. Breaking down the solidified monopolies of centralised power production, transmission and distribution towards a more egalitarian, decentralied structure is certainly the right direction for solar today. That will not only help reach the technology at grassroots but also ensure self-production and distribution.
Disclaimer: This article, authored by Kritika Kapoor, was first published on GOI Monitor
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