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Here comes the sun

Solar power has been left hanging in the sky for far too long. Policies must change to tap this clean and abundant energy, writes KumKum Dasgupta.
By KumKum Dasgupta | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUL 17, 2008 10:20 PM IST

Last week, residents of Hyderabad were in for a shock when the state government announced that there would be no electricity for two to six hours everyday. As for the industrial areas, there would be a one-day ‘electricity holiday’ every week. The reason? A shortfall of 1,000 MW.

Hyderabad is no one-off case. India is gasping for energy. And mind you there are 76 million rural households that are yet to switch on their first light bulb. By 2030, the Planning Commission estimates, India will need to generate at least 700,000 MW of additional power to meet the demands of its expanding economy and growing population. But generating power will not be the end of the story. It has to come from cleaner sources.

So it comes as no surprise that the government has linked the two — India’s energy security and climate change — in the National Action Plan on Climate Change that was released by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on June 30. Significantly, both the report and the PM in his speech talk specifically of solar power, in the context of a National Solar Mission, to significantly increase the share of clean power in the total energy mix of the country.

“It is tragic, if not immoral, if we don’t accept that thousands of people in India have no access to electricity and that they would have to wait for years before they get grid connection. In this scenario, solar energy is like dollar bills lying on the sidewalk — we have to just pick it up,” says R.K. Pachauri, Director General, The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri). And there is reason for such a sunny approach.

India receives about 5,000 trillion kilo-watt hour (kWH) equivalent of energy per year through solar radiation. Just 1 per cent of the country’s land area can meet its entire electricity requirements till 2030. In 2007, solar energy production in India was 80 megawatt peak (MWp) power, a mere 1.7 per cent of the world total of 4,700 MWp.

Despite a fairly strong start, India’s ‘solar energy movement’ failed to gather pace. But now with increasing costs of oil and the threat of climate change, the buzz is back. Solar energy’s biggest advantage is that power generation can be decentralised. Transmission and distribution losses are low. Teri’s ‘Lighting a Billion Lives Programme’, for instance, provides solar lanterns to users at Rs 2-3 per day in villages.

In urban areas too, people are opting for this clean energy. This month, Kolkata’s Rabirashmi Abasan became the first housing project where residents have the option of giving back power — generated in their rooftop solar photovoltaic panels — to the grid of the power utilities. From now on, their electricity bills will reflect the difference between the energy consumed from utilities and how much they push back to the grid. Similar grid-connected systems are popular in Germany, Spain, Japan and the US.

For individuals interested in setting up solar photovoltaic panels — that convert solar energy directly into electricity — or solar thermal systems — that convert thermal energy of the sun into a usable form — there are government subsidies.

So what’s keeping you and me from installing these rooftop solar energy systems? “High initial costs and the fact that the subsidy programmes are run through government channels. This means cutting through reams of red tape before getting any kind of relief,” says A.P. Srivastav, President, Solar Energy Society of India.

Despite constraints, the spin-offs of setting up a rooftop plant can be huge. For example, if there are 100,000 kothis in Delhi and each sets up a 5 kW solar power plant (requiring 60-80 sq ft and Rs 18-20 lakh), they can harness 5 lakh kW or 500 MW right at the point of consumption. “The government needs to give more incentives to individual harvesters and net-metering to popularise the concept,” says A. Chaurey of Teri.

For private developers, the new policy on grid connectivity is a welcome step. But here too more incentives are needed. “The tariff subsidy is for 10 years. No depreciation can be charged. But solar PV panels have a lifetime of 25 years and developers will need 15 years to recoup their capital costs,” says Srivastav. While the nation debates the nuclear deal, India should also put its mind — and its money — on the sun: the original nuclear energy generator.

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