Ray of hope: India’s solar dreams are big and bright. Are they realistic?
Eight minutes and 20 seconds. That’s how long it takes for sunlight to travel to Earth. And India has never been better prepared to receive it.
As part of the world’s largest renewable-energy expansion plan, India is banking heavily on sunshine to meet an ambitious target. In four years, it expects to have 175 gigawatts (GW) of energy coming from renewable sources — with 100 GW of this to be solar power.
Twelve years from now, the plan is for 40% of all the power we use to come from renewable energy, up from 18% today.
Meeting the 2022 deadline is expected to cost Rs 125 billion (Rs 8.5 trillion), but if we make it, India will be the biggest solar energy generator after China and the US, a daring, expensive dream for a nation whose solar programme started much after those two nations.
It’s also a goal India can no longer put off. Electricity consumption has skyrocketed in the last two decades — we now use twice as much energy as we did in 2000, and eight times as much as in the 1970s. “The estimated fuel costs to power India are enormous, and it’s devastating for the environment,” says Divya Charen, a senior analyst specialising in power companies at the credit-rating agency India Ratings and Research. More than half our power currently comes from burning coal and natural gas – they heat up the planet, they pollute, they’ll eventually run out.
When China started its solar journey a decade ago, the goals were size, speed and efficiency. Unlike the US and Germany, which encouraged rooftop panels to harness sunlight piecemeal, it introduced solar-friendly subsidies, began manufacturing photovoltaic cells on an industrial scale, and covered massive swathes of land and water in gleaming solar parks.
China is now the world’s largest solar power generator. Last year alone, it added 53 GW — more than half of all new global solar capacity in that year. It’s also home to the world’s largest solar park, the 1.5 GW project in the Tengger Desert.
The numbers might look different in the coming years. Falling government subsidies suggest China’s solar power growth will be slower in 2018. Of the world’s 10 largest solar parks under construction, only 1 is in China.
But five are being built in India, two of which (see box) are bigger than China’s biggest. In fact, there’s even a 5 GW park on the cards, in Gujarat’s Dholera Special Investment Region.
By 2022, India expects to have 38 solar parks selling power to state-owned companies to supply to end-users.
“Unlike dams for hydroelectricity, a solar park is easy to build and there are fewer problems with geological sensitivity, losing forest cover and displacing people,” Charen says.
India has already achieved a key step in promoting the use of clean energy. In 2017, solar power became cheaper than grid power for most commercial and industrial customers. China, which gets proportionally less of its total power from solar, hopes to achieve the same only by 2022.
India’s biggest parks are being built in Karnataka, Telangana, Rajasthan, Gujarat... essentially, sunny regions where there is vacant, arid land. But across the country, farms, airports, hospitals, campuses, malls and office complexes are setting up their own solar power systems.
“Panels are getting less expensive, making the sun’s energy more viable to use,” says Rahul Jigjinni, director of Gruntech Projects, which sets up rooftop and ground-level solar power systems in India.
Urban homes and residential societies, however, haven’t been as enthusiastic. “Institutional projects are easier, there are few decision makers,” Jigjinni explains. “It’s harder to get 150 homeowners to agree to invest Rs 60 to 80 lakh in an electrical system that takes 10 years to break even.”
Even if they were enthusiastic, space is an issue. In vertical cities such as Mumbai or Gurugram, there often isn’t enough sky-facing space to generate power for all residents. Also, battery packs to store solar power are expensive and need regular replacing.
Institutional projects, however, are growing in scale and number. In Amritsar, Punjab, a 19 MW project across the 82-acre campus of the RSSB Educational and Environmental Society is the largest rooftop solar project anywhere in the world. In Kochi, the international airport is India’s first fully solar-powered one, with a 12 MW plant.
In the solar industry, size matters, but so does technique.
The industry is new, so grandiose central government plans fumble at the state level. Often, power grids are unable to access, transmit or cope with the intermittent power supply from the new parks. “Power distribution companies have not been guided on the mix of coal and power use for their grids,” Charen says. “The industry essentially needs systems that allow power to be evacuated from areas of concentration.”
In regions where excess power is being generated via the sun, there aren’t enough ways to store it. A series of Green Energy Corridors, with high-voltage lines and renewable energy management centres, are being planned to address these concerns. Both are running behind schedule.
A central government committee on the matter has said we need to install five times more transmission lines in 2018-19 than we did in the previous year, to keep the power flowing.
A major concern is India’s scattered state policies for rooftop systems that are connected to the electricity grid. “An office complex or mall may use much of its power in the day, while homes tend to use more electricity after sunset, when everyone’s home but the sun isn’t shining,” says Jigjinni. “Institutions with rooftop panels also harness solar power on holidays.”
Net-metering systems — which offset units contributed to the grid against units drawn from it — are a good way to promote rooftop solar use. Customers pay lower bills and recover the cost for their panels faster.
“But states have varied polices about this. Some limit the amount of energy you can send to the grid, some companies don’t want to ‘buy’ from small-scale rooftop systems at all. This prevents widespread use,” Jigjinni says.
In addition, there are environmental concerns associated with solar parks. The panels need weekly cleaning for peak efficiency and while larger parks can afford robotic systems to dry brush, smaller ones use water — lots of it.
Charen believes it’s going to be hard to meet the 2022 target. “The total land required to power all of India by the sun isn’t much — an area two to three times the size of Goa,” she says. “Everyone agrees that solar energy is necessary and a good investment. But it’s not clear whether we’ll be able to raise those trillions for our growth ambitions. And there’s too much left to do.”