While India aims to reach a target of 20,000 MW of solar power by 2020, a national Solar Atlas is in the making that will help scale up India’s sunrise sector

A solar installation at Auroville, Pondicherry (Image by ammusk)

A solar installation at Auroville, Pondicherry (Image by ammusk)

A Solar Atlas of India is now in the making. Earlier this year, the Centre for Wind Energy Technology (C-WET), an autonomous research and development institution that forms a part of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), signed an agreement with 3TIER India Private Ltd, to create the atlas. As per the agreement, they will develop and disseminate critical investor-grade information that will enable India to meet its ambitious solar energy capacity targets.

C-WET has been entrusted by the Indian government to create and share commercially relevant weather resource information with prospective future financiers and the wider investor community. This forms part of a wider strategy to ensure adequate solar radiation data is available to the domestic and international business community, with particular emphasis on those that have already identified the Indian market to be of strong solar investment interest.

The state-of-the-art satellite methodology will be used to analyse the range of factors that impact surface irradiance conditions, such as cloud movement, air quality and cyclical events like cyclone seasons and monsoons. Also, it will help provide a clearer understanding of weather anomalies along with spatial and hourly solar irradiation variability. It will include a series of monthly solar resource maps covering the entire country and long-term solar resource and meteorological datasets at 115 locations.

G.Giridhar, Director of the SRRA (Solar Radiation Resource Assessment) Mission Mode Project at C-WET, explains that all information will be regularly updated to include the most recent months and will be validated by C-WET’s SRRA stations spread across the country. The data quality checks and accuracy levels are facilitated through an active collaboration between Chennai-based C-WET and the German development agency GIZ.

Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), India aims to reach 20 GW of grid tied solar power, 2 GW of off-grid solar power, and 20 million square metres of solar thermal collector area by 2022. Industry experts believe that meeting these targets will require long-term market certainty in order to attract the necessary inward investment of capital. Publicly available solar information from the Indian government will guide development, attract investment, and accelerate the growth of solar energy.

According to Nikhilesh Singh, Managing Director of 3TIER India, long-term certainty is not solely generated by strong, stable government policy. “It also requires long-term certainty in the resource. Prospective developers and investors need information to quickly assess whether solar projects will be commercially viable and able to meet energy production expectations.”

“A large part of ensuring project feasibility is optimal siting. This involves appropriately sizing the system to match the available energy resource, evaluating proximity to transmission and major centres for energy demand, as well as ensuring that the infrastructure is equipped to manage the influx of energy from a variable source. The forthcoming solar atlas will provide a detailed view of India’s solar power resources, which while vast, vary significantly both across geography and over time.”

Singh adds that data from the solar atlas is likely to help in making investment decisions for many smaller installations. “Also, it will be a robust starting point for large projects to determine where to site their own measurements and projects.”

S.Gomathinayagam, Executive Director, C-WET, believes the project will “greatly help in evaluating and prioritizing required infrastructure, such as solar generation facilities, storage technology, and transmission lines – in essence, answering where and how to invest in order to harness India’s considerable solar energy potential. The resulting nationwide solar study will help investors and market players clear the first hurdle in the process by filling a critical information gap.”

Industry is positive. Raveesh Budania, partner at Headway Solar, a consulting firm which advises investors, policy makers and suppliers on taking better key decisions in the Indian solar power sector, says, “The atlas will help in better planning of locations of PV (photovoltaic) projects and grid stability.”

Aiding the industry

Singh believes that the solar atlas will also provide a better understanding of weather anomalies with spatial and hourly solar irradiation variability. “Since it includes spatial maps showing monthly average solar resource intensity and hourly solar records of solar variability at 115 selected locations, this information makes it possible to analyse and predict long-term trends to determine what year-over-year and month-over-month project performance risk will be.”

Explaining how the atlas will also help in evaluating and prioritizing required infrastructure, Singh says, “Developers are looking for the best sites to construct solar generation facilities. An optimal site is defined by a number of factors, but a strong solar resource – particularly where and when energy is most needed – is a key characteristic. While it may only be one factor of many, the intensity and variability of the solar resource is the most sensitive driver of uncertainty in a project pro forma. Information from the solar atlas will fill critical gaps in this respect.”

Such major investments take years and billions to build. Planning and funding them requires a complex understanding of when and where renewable resources are strongest and what their variability is. By overlaying renewable resource information with transmission lines, population, energy demand, and other information, GIS analysts and planners can make the right decisions in the solar sector.

Even as Budania agrees that the solar atlas can be a go-to reference point for better planning of solar generation, he points out that there are too many variables. “Though the availability of more accurate irradiation data is an important enabler, it is not the booster that would accelerate PV capacity addition. So, while the solar atlas will positively impact the project development efforts, it will not radically influence the pace of JNNSM.”

He also says that for GW-scale solar projects, a detailed feasibility study has to be conducted, which will require more in-depth analysis than just the solar atlas. Therefore, the solar atlas will not substantially impact GW-scale PV projects.

Prospects for investors

Since the Solar Atlas will provide over a decade of long-term solar resource data at 115 locations around India to help better understand solar variability across the country, it will prove valuable to domestic and international investors, stresses Singh.

“In renewable energy, the fuel of the plant may be free, but its availability varies by location and from year-to-year, month-to-month, and hour-to-hour. With advanced satellite processing and measurements, we gain a long-term understanding of this variability, which is required for financial modelling and determining the project’s exposure to risk prior to investment.”

Combating climate change

Budania says the solar atlas is a “Small, yet important effort in the direction of (combating) climate change.”It will help in more accurate yield estimation and better site selection, and consequently, more accurate planning and tackling of challenges related to resource variability, which is important for technical design engineers as well as financiers.

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