Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, April 25, 2011 at 12:46:34 PM
A proposal to build the world's largest solar power plant in Gujarat funded by Bill Clinton’s foundation, another to make it mandatory for all the 3000-plus billboards in Mumbai to use sun's energy and a third to provide 20 million solar lighting systems for rural areas by 2022 - India, like in the ancient past, again pays obeisance to the Sun God for a brighter and more prosperous future.
But will the sun keep smiling on us?
Well, let's hope it does. The need to go solar is urgent. According to a The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) report, India's current electricity installed capacity is 135401.63 MW. Currently, there is peak power shortage of about 10 per cent and overall power shortage of 7.5 per cent. The target is to add 100000 MW by 2012 and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has set up a target of 14500 MW by 2012 from renewable energy sources, 50 MW of which would be from solar energy. And keeping an eye on the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission’s (JNNSM) goal, 37 companies have been selected for scaling up production from near zero to 20000 MW by 2022 at an overall investment of about $70 billion (Rs 3,100 billion).
India recognised its need to harness the 5000 trillion kWh of insolation it gets every year to generate heat (solar thermal technology) and electricity (solar photovoltaic technology), as early as 1981. The sudden increase in the price of oil and uncertainties associated with its supply, forced the then government to even create the Department of Non-conventional Energy Sources, which later went on to become the MNRE. However, the rubber-stamping didn’t do much besides pushing people to opt for eco-friendly solar-powered water pumps instead of the diesel ones that each consumed 3.5 kW, buy solar cookers and heaters and a little off-grid lighting. But now, with more and more countries investing in cleaner technologies for power-generation, India too has started to take its position as a tropical country more seriously than ever before to meet its future energy demands.
Bringing light to villages
The tiny village of Tilonia in Ajmer district, Rajasthan (it gets the highest annual solar radiation) boasts of one of the country's most successful rural solar electrification projects. In 1989, the NGO Barefoot College demystified solar technology to the poorest of the poor, "who are barely literate or not at all, and have no hope of getting even the lowest government job". Since then, villagers have been trained to fabricate, install, use, repair and maintain sophisticated solar lighting units. In such areas, where grid penetration is neither feasible nor cost effective, solar energy applications are cost-effective.
In its bid to cater to such rural poor, the Indian government has proposed to install solar power plants on the vast swathes of arid and semi-arid land (since space is a constraint elsewhere) in Gujarat, Rajasthan, parts of Maharashtra, Haryana and Ladakh. Pranav Mehta, chairman, Solar Energy Association of Gujarat boasts of the 958 MW solar projects coming up in the state, “more than anywhere else in India” and that 83 different parties have signed 25-year power purchase agreements (PPAs) with Gujarat’s electricity board. Launched in 2009 and built under a 30-year PPA with the Punjab State Electricity Board, Azure Power's 2-megawatt photovoltaic plant in Punjab became the first privately owned, utility-scale power plant on the Asian subcontinent to help power 4,000 rural homes for 20,000 people. Thermax is helping to set up a 250 kW solar plant is set to come up in Shive village near Pune, making it the first village in the country to have its own electricity generation plant. And undeterred by the swampy mangrove forests, Websol Energy Systems has managed to penetrate even the dark remote islands of the Sunderbans in West Bengal and set up 20-25 kilowatt-peak off-grid solar plants for Rs 84-96 lakh each. The benefits have been tremendous. Since solar power came to Sagardwip in 1996, schools have introduced practical classes and computer education, health care and communication facilities have improved, more jobs have been created because a number of small and cottage industries have started their operations, Ravinder Tanwar, Vice President – Operations, Websol Energy Systems, said.
But it costs a lot
It's the cost factor that is making large-scale manufacturing and usage of solar power difficult. Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology uses fine silicon-wafer solar cells that receive sunlight and convert the same into electricity. Silicon wafers in solar panels are expensive to manufacture. So when the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) makes it mandatory for utilities to procure 0.25 per cent to 0.50 per cent solar power, it has to factor in the manufacturing cost for the raw materials for its generation. At Rs 17.91 per unit, solar power may help reduce your carbon footprint, but burns a hole in your pocket!
To encourage more investment in the solar sector, the Indian government is increasing subsidies for solar projects (up to 90 per cent in some cases) and mandating that state utilities purchase solar power. Critics say the subsidies will not help till indigenous cost-effective solar technology comes in. Addressing an audience at the green energy expo, Renewtech India 2011 in Mumbai, Arnulf Jäger-Waldau, Senior Scientist at the Renewable Energy Unit, Institute for Energy of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, stressed on the need for sound fundamental research to introduce new technologies. "All market players expect that in the long-term the growth rates for photovoltaics will continue to be high, even if political or economic conditions could lead to a short-term slow down. The ongoing shortage in silicon feedstock, triggered by extremely high growth rates of the photovoltaics industry over the last years is providing a window of opportunities for accelerated introduction of advanced production technologies, thin film solar modules and technologies like concentrator concepts."
Club it with the rest
In their paper, Making Solar Thermal Power Generation in India a reality - Overview of technologies, opportunities and challenges, Shirish Garud and Ishan Purohit of TERI, propose that “solar thermal power plants can be integrated with existing industries such as paper, dairy and sugar, which have co-generation units, thereby reducing capital investment in steam turbines and associated power-house infrastructure, thereby reducing the cost of generation of solar energy.” That may be the way forward for industries to use more solar power. As for domestic consumption – for heating, airconditioning, cooking and lighting – experts are looking at a combination of solar, wind and biomass energy to help bring down the tariff. The message is clear – clean is here to stay!