Recently, my colleague, Neha Pushkarna, wrote in HT about three families in different parts of Delhi who have found a do-it-yourself solution to the capital’s problematic power situation, marked by soaring demand but frequent outages in supply. The three families — the Kapoors, the Ghais and the Seshadris — decided to go solar by installing power panels on their rooftops to generate power. The photovoltaic cells on the panels convert sunlight to direct current, which a power inverter then turns into alternating current that meets nearly half of each of the families’ household demand for electricity. There’s more to it than just that. If the solar power systems generate more power than is used by the families, the surplus goes into the network of the local discom, which sets it off against what is drawn by the households.
Welcome to the emerging world of ‘net metering’ where people producing their own power, using renewable means, can sell their surpluses to discoms. What the three households are doing individually in Delhi and three others collectively — two schools in the city’s eastern part and a PSU’s residential complex in the south — could be the beginning of a quiet power revolution. The Delhi families that Pushkarna wrote about spent a couple of lakhs of rupees each to set up the solar power systems but the payback has begun. Most solar power users can recover their costs in three to five years and see their electricity bills get halved as their consumption from the grid reduces. And now, with discoms starting to ‘net-meter’ their customers, there’s a bonus in it as well.
For India, there is a lesson to learn from Germany. More than 20% of Germany’s power needs come from renewable sources and solar power accounts for 25% of that. That math is relevant when you consider another percentage: 80% of that solar power is made by a million German households that have rooftop systems connected to the grid. It’s been 20 years since Germany became one of the first countries to encourage households to install rooftop systems by offering them a higher feed-in tariff (the price that the grid or discom pays to buy power from households) than the price that the households pay to buy power from the grid.
The potential is huge for setting up household solar power systems on rooftops, terraces and balconies in Indian cities and towns where sunlight is in abundance most of the year. And while it is true that the cost of setting up photovoltaic solar panels is not cheap, technology and innovation are constantly pushing those costs down. Also, the running cost of a solar power system is next to nothing. And, if consumers such as the Kapoors, the Ghais and the Seshadris get an additional nudge from ‘net metering’ schemes, the solar power movement in India could gather real momentum.
The NGO, Greenpeace (recently under a cloud with the government freezing its bank accounts) has estimated that Delhi’s 31 sq km of rooftops have a potential for generating 2,557 MW of solar power every day — compared to Delhi’s daily demand of 3,500 MW, that’s huge. Converting every Delhi rooftop to a solar power system may seem a tall order but if Indians are serious about cracking the power crisis and choosing environment-friendly ways to do so, then out-of-box thinking may be the only way to go. The total grid-connected solar power capacity in India today is 3,743.97 MW — that’s a negligible 1.45% of India’s total installed power capacity. To change that, the thinking has to change.
Urging households to set up rooftop systems is one way of changing things but there could be more. What about a law that makes builders include grid-linked solar power systems in every new housing project that they build? Or, instead of climate-unfriendly glass and steel exteriors, why can’t all new buildings in office complexes have solar panels on the outside walls? And (in an ironic twist), why can’t all gas or coal-fired power units be made to install solar power producing units on the rooftops of their sprawling plants? Those are a few of my suggestions. I’m sure you’d have more.
The author is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan