Ideas To Help India Realize Its Solar Power Potential

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Recently Japan’s  SoftBank announced a joint venture with Bharti Enterprises and  Foxconn (headquarters Taiwan) to set up solar parks. Earlier this  year US solar power company SunEdison and Adani Enterprises announced  a plan to invest up to $4 billion in solar panel manufacturing (for  manufacturing low-cost PV modules).

“The investment of  $ 20 billion will be made through the next ten years. If we have  stable scale and if land is available to us, manufacturing of solar  equipment will also make sense,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and  CEO, SoftBank Corp.

The potential for  generating solar power, other than from solar parks, is huge. Here  are some ideas.

One, during a  2013 visit to the Vivekananda Kendra School in Tawang, girls were  unable to study in the evening and hostels, pitch dark due to a power  blackout. Was told of frequent power cuts.

Like this school  there must be thousands of schools across the country especially  residential ones. Tawang gets sun for 7-8 months in a year, schools  in the plains much more.

A product (panel +  funding plan) i.e. targeted at schools has huge potential.

Currently, Central  Government gives a subsidy of 15% of the benchmark cost (30% till  Budget 2015). Amongst the States, Chhattisgarh gives subsidy and  Tamil Nadu a generation based incentive.

The  April 2015 Reserve  Bank of India circular  on Priority Sector Lending (PSL) for  Renewal Energy has bank loans of up to Rs 15 crores for borrowers and  Rs 10 lakhs for individual households.

In order to promote  the use of solar energy in schools situated in hilly, naxal affected  and backward areas the Central Government must give a capex subsidy  of 50%/effective interest rate of 5%. Also, RBI to include such loans  as PSL.

Two, the  Indo-Pakistan border in Rajasthan is floodlit all night. During a  conversation with a BSF Jawan (2013) he cribbed about power cuts  meaning they had to ferry diesel to keep the lights on. He wondered  why the Government did not use solar power? A Shillong Times report  referred to a similar problem in Meghalaya where smuggling of  boulders to Bangladesh takes place at night.

In Rajasthan,  waste-land could be used or the 445 km Indira Gandhi Canal be covered  with PV panels in parts. Power would be transferred to the State  grid. If power is stored in batteries it will increase the cost.

Using Canal option  prevents evaporation of water and “solar panels shall produce 15%  extra power as compared to land installations as the water flowing  under the panels keeps them relatively cool.”

According  to S P Baral Director (Strategy and Business Development) of  Crux  Power, Bhubaneswar “canal option roughly cost about 1.5 times due  to the cost of mounting the structure, civil engineering and other  safety measures. Also, moisture might affect the life of the panel  and this effort requires concerned Ministries to work in tandem when  objectives are different”. Lastly “regular maintenance of solar  PV in dust prone areas, i.e. Rajasthan, needs to be done if the  efficiency of solar PV is not to go down.” Read  about pros and cons of canal solar PV  here

Pioneers of canal  top solar PV, Gujarat’s second 10 MW project is on the 3.6 km of  the Vadodara branch the Sardar Sarovar project canal. It was  commissioned in November 2014 at a cost of $ 18.3 million and has  nearly 35,000 panels. Power is fed into the State grid and to operate  pumping stations in the canal.

Industry sources  state that floodlighting of border is energy and capital intensive.  Given length of India’s borders Government must seriously evaluate  usage of solar power in border areas.

Also small solar  power systems at individual BSF posts shall reduce dependence on grid  and DG power.

Three, did  you know  that, “on an average, the country’s cell tower network  consumes over 11 billion kWh annually and is likely to increase up to  17 billion kWh by 2016? In the absence of grid or intermittent power  supply where grid is available, these cell phone towers often require  diesel to run the operations. This sector consumes around 3 billion  liters of diesel annually.”

According to S  Baral, “1 litre of diesel generates app 3.5 units of power. If  you add capex cost, per unit cost crosses Rs 20/ per unit.  Conversely, cost of solar is app Rs 8-9/ per unit”.

A July  2013 study by ‘shows a saving per kWh of Rs 10/ in  operation cost alone at diesel price of Rs 52.25 per litre. With  every Rs 10/ per litre increase in price of diesel, the solar  photovoltaic payback period reduces by app 2.5 years’. Current  diesel price is about Rs 57/ per litre and crude at $ 56. With  deregulation of price increase in crude will be passed on.

A Hybrid Solar  system is an option. Assuming that there are two operators for a  tower, the area required is 6 by 6 metres to generate 8KW. A 600 Ah  battery would give four hours of backup. Industry sources indicate a  pay-back period of four years.

Use of hybrid solar  is yet to take off in a big way. Note there are app 510,000 towers  today so the potential is huge. Can RBI include bank loans to telecom  tower companies as PSL? It would reduce cost of funding and  incentivise telecoms to aggressively go solar.

Since Bharti is a  partner in the Softbank JV it can use insights derived as a telecom  company to provide customized workable solutions to tower companies.  Solar products manufactured by JV can be exported to AIRTEL Africa.

Four,  solar panels for personal use should be marketed like TV Dish  Antennas. A villager in Bastar’s Narainpur district asked the  author (2012), what use is the antennae when there is no power?

Dish companies Tata  Sky, Dish TV, AIRTEL can, like telecom companies who bundle  instrument with airtime/charger,  bundle antennas and solar  panels. The products are complimentary, availability of bijli shall  increase antennae sales.

Today you see TV  antennas in the smallest of homes across Bharat. Opportunity exists!

Five, the  Government should make it mandatory for new multi-storeyed  residential/commercial buildings/gated communities/MALLS in four  metros, Gurgaon, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane, NOIDA, Ahmedabad  to have rooftop solar such that common lighting, hot water and  minimal light in each unit is provided for. The Haryana government  amongst others have made a beginning.

According to  Consulting firm Bridge To India, Patna’s rooftop space has the  potential to solar  capacity of 759MW.

The government has  just launched an Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency loan  scheme for rooftop solar projects in the country. It can be availed  by project aggregators, developers. To know details go  here  

Details of the  rooftop scheme needs to be publicized big time. Outsourcing the  communication and approval of subsidy to a customer friendly private  sector intermediary  would increase possibility of success.

Six, most new  commercial buildings have glass interiors. According to S Baral, ‘at  an additional cost of app 25-30% glass panels could be replaced by  Building Integrated Photovoltaic modules’. The building would be  billed based on total units consumed less power contribution to grid.

Buzz word for solar  industry should be ‘Go to Consumer site’, ‘Enlighten  Consumer on benefits of Solar Power’ for e.g. Tata Power Solar  set up a 2MW rooftop solar system for Murugan Textiles – the first  power loom producer to use 100% renewal energy.

Clearly there is a  huge untapped market for solar products. Solar Power should be  marketed like an FMCG product to create a huge national market.

Most of the above  ideas do not require large tracts of agricultural land and power  purchase agreements with State Electricity Boards who are reeling  under huge losses.

These are some ideas  on the untapped potential for solar power which need to be explored  and supported in all seriousness.

India’s solar  energy plan should include baby steps as outlined above and solar  parks. This approach will generate employment at the grassroots level  and provide economies of scale i.e. essential for manufacture of  solar equipment in India.

Sceptics have  expressed doubts over the government’s ambitious target of  installing 100,000 MW of solar power capacity (20k MW from solar  parks, 40k MW each from roof-top and distributed generation projects)  by 2022.

Big  change requires us to think big, out the box and focus on  implementation.

The  author is an independent columnist and Chartered Accountant. Disclosure: has no business interests in the solar sector. Follow him  at https://twitter.com/sanjeev1927

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