When launching the International Solar Alliance (ISA) during the United Nations Climate Change summit in 2015 at Paris, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “The sun is the source of all energy, the world must turn to solar, the power of our future.”
Last week, a solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu became the world’s largest plant. With a capacity to produce 648 MW of electricity, the plant comprises 2.5 million individual solar modules.
Still, despite being a sun-rich country, India has failed to tap its true potential. The endeavours range from a one-off photovoltaic solar project to an almost failed solar-cooker propagation drive. Even with more than 300 sunny days a year in most parts of the country, India’s solar energy programme had never really caught on till the launch of Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in 2010. By the middle of 2013, the cumulative installed capacity had risen to 506.9 MW, from 17.8 MW in 2010. The wheel had been set in motion.
Two years ago, the government upped its solar energy targets. The installed capacity is now more than 10 times of that in 2010. With the addition of 1,964.76 MW in the first seven months of the current fiscal, the total solar power generation capacity in the country as on October 31, 2016 has risen to more than 8727.62 MW.” The target up to March 2017 is 10,500 MW.
This is proof enough that India is on the right track. In its action plan to combat climate change – formally called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – submitted to the UN, India has promised to increase its renewable energy target to a massive 175 GW, of which solar energy is expected to rise to 100 GW by year 2022. Of this, as much as 40 GW is slated for rooftop solar.
India is witnessing a huge paradigm shift when it comes to solar power. Airports (Kochi went fully solar in 2015), the Delhi Metro, the railways, solar-powered toll plazas, farmers’ cooperatives, canal-top solar generation in Gujarat and even a solar-powered blood bank in Arunachal Pradesh, the list goes on. But the best opportunity that remains as-yet untapped is the ‘roof top solar’ for the vast country as diverse in terrain as India.
Solar energy: an agent of change
Thousands of households across India still live under dark need de-centralised solar power rather than the cost-intensive grid power. Even when government has announced solar parks, and several of them are indeed coming up in many states, it is the off-grid solar power that will and should pave the way for not just for those households in rural, hinterlands but for urban roof tops too, not to mention hundreds and thousands of government buildings across the country.
The government is promoting its Surya Mitra skill development scheme in a big way and has completed training for a large number of youth. This, however, is fraught with its own set of problems. People in rural areas face an absence of point of sales for solar panels, post-sale maintenance and availability of spare parts.
A case in point is the Jammu Kashmir Energy Development Agency’s Surya Mitra youth. Of the 26 persons who completed the training in February 2016, many are still awaiting work. An official associated with the project told me that in absence of adequate opportunities in their own state, the students are mostly referred to institutions outside. “But we are hoping that things will change when the state cabinet approves of the proposed ‘Roof Top Technology’ policy,” he told me.
Not just roof top solar, there is immense potential for research and development in the solar energy field. The challenge is to come up with technology suitable to Indian market requirements even when several private companies, both domestic and foreign, are eyeing a big pie.
In its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions document, India said: “If climate change is a calamity that mankind must adapt to while taking mitigation action withal, it should not be used as a commercial opportunity. It is time that a mechanism is set up which will turn technology and innovation into effective instrument for global public good, not just private returns.”
This technology and finance, coming from private players, needs to be diverted for creating social change and not end up as another cause for capital funding.
Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi.