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Sun rises on solar products

business Updated: Aug 21, 2010 02:29 IST
Himani Chandna
Himani Chandna
Hindustan Times
mobile phone charger

Left your mobile phone charger at home? How about some sunshine? Did you know that you could charge up your handset with a solar-powered handset that taps sunlight on its panels?

Outside of the conventional electric wires and batteries that run up power bills or add to climate change, a brave new world of gadgets and gear is coming up, showing a new potential in solar energy. While there are hiccups on the way, the way growth is picking up and venture capital investments are pouring in, solar products are something you need to watch out for.

Consider the array of solar products on offer: iPod chargers, emergency lights, rice cookers, lanterns, water heaters, garden lights, AM/FM radios, rechargeable fans, power fences, water pumps…The list is long.

The catch is that these gadgets cost more than their conventional counterparts by the unit, but experts say what one loses in the upfront price can be made up in the money saved on electricity bills. Solar products can help you survive power cuts and also have low operating costs.

For example, a solar water heater costs around R10,000 whereas its traditional avatar costs around R3,000. The gist lies in the fact that on customary product one needs to pay a regular amount of electricity bill (electronic water heater is usually blamed for yielding soaring bills) whereas solar products involves a one-time installation cost, leading to the cost recovery in the near future.

"I installed a solar water heater three years ago. Till date, I have not spent a penny more on it. I only wipe the dirt over it from a duster and pay zero recurring cost," says Veena Thakar, a homemaker in West Delhi.

But the device turns useless during the rainy monsoon days, when sunshine is not easy to capture. That, however, is a minor hiccup because power shortages and shrinking costs are making things better for solar gear, say industry experts.

"The costs are falling because of the plummeting price of solar modules," said Vinay Shetty, general manager (sales), Moser Baer Solar Ltd.

The module typically accounts for 50 per cent of a product cost and its price, thanks to increasing competition, has dipped to R80 to 100 per watt from R200 to 230 per watt in the past year, he said.

IndiaMART.com, online business-to-business marketplace, registers more than 1,400 companies that sell more than 4,000 solar-related products. "This segment forms a small yet a growing share among the total product categories listed with us," said Dinesh Aggarwal, CEO, IndiaMART.com.

At the retail level, however, distribution has been a major problem in the past for solar product makers. Some of them are using non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In rural areas, they are also partnering microfinance institutions to help the poor fund products whose costs are low and outage-proof.

After-sales service is also a major bottleneck that solar product makers have to cope with.

"Renewable energy gadgets are facing the challenge of scale of production," Suresh Kumar, director at TAPSI Engineering, a consulting firm, told Hindustan Times.

"As the technology barriers comedown and operations in this area scales up, these products will become more cost effective and popular".

India increasingly makes solar parts but some critical components are imported.

"Import tariff for several raw materials and component has been curtailed but there are no subsidies for manufacturers. They are only for end users," said Ankur Puranik, CEO, of Om Micro Electronics, which makes solar appliances.

End consumers also cannot easily get the subsidies they are entitled to, as government procedures are complex, experts said.

"We also need to upgrade the available solar technology due to its highly inefficient nature which utilises only 17-18 per cent of the total sunlight received, through the serious investments into R&D," Puranik said.

G. Satish kumar, marketing manager at Delhi-based appliance maker Aditya Energy Systems, said demand has surged but the government only offers little-publicised tax breaks, not aggressive promotion. "The government has waived off the sales tax, excise duty and octroi for our convenience but it should undertake some campaign to promote green gadgets."