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A solar plant covering an irrigation canal, producing electricity and reducing evaporation at the same time, impressed UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon during his recent visit to India

Solar panels covering Vadodara canal conserve land, water and emit no greenhouse gases (Image by Keya Acharya)

Solar panels covering Vadodara canal conserve land, water and emit no greenhouse gases (Image by Keya Acharya)

India’s flagging solar energy programme received a moral boost recently with the unveiling by UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon, of the country’s and possibly the world’s first solar energy project spanning a waterway canal.

The 10 MW canal top solar power plant using 3.6 km of the Vadodara branch canal running parallel to Gujarat’s Vadodara city in western India has 33,816 photovoltaic (PV) panels covering the width of the canal and is expected to generate 16.2 million units of electricity in the first year.

The Vadodara branch canal is one in a network of canals carrying water from the Sardar Sarovar dam, 93 km away from Vadodara city, which in turn stores water from the river Narmada 500 km away.

The electricity generated from the canal top power plant will feed into the grid, but will be used by a pumping station of the government’s Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), a government department in charge of water distribution from the Narmada river and also of the canal top plant, making its utilisation a ‘captive energy’ system.

It cost $18.3 billion to build the plant. The capital costs are expected to break even after 13 years.

The plant is a showcase for new climate technology, harnessing solar energy in lieu of carbon-emitting thermal power and impressing Ban ki Moon, who called the plant an “inspiration for the world”.

“This facility demonstrates that one solution can have multiple benefits,” Ban told his audience at the field site. “More solar power means less pollution.”

“Looking out at the canal top solar power plant, I saw more than glittering panels – I saw the future of India and the future of our world,” said the UN head, praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the initiative in Modi’s home state.

In 2011, when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he came up with the concept of covering irrigation canals with solar PV panels. The idea was to save on already-scarce land for power generation while harnessing the state’s plentiful solar power potential to go ‘green’.

The state’s electricity board opened a 1 MW pilot project on the Narmada branch canal 75 km from Gujarat’s largest city Ahmedabad in 2012, at rates slightly higher than a land-based solar PV plant.

The electricity board says this first 1-MW plant saved six acres of land and about nine million litres of water per year through reduced evaporation by the sun due to the canal being covered.

Buoyed by this success, the government-owned SSNNL installed the 10 MW canal top solar power plant on a 3.6 km stretch of the Vadodara branch canal. It is now being used to encourage similar projects all over India.

India’s renewable energy initiatives grew manifold in the last decade at an annual rate of 25%, with solar power growing from practically zero to 2,500 MW.

Still, in the national picture of installed capacity and of renewable energy, solar power generation currently constitutes just about 1% of the country’s installed capacity of 228 GW, as per strategic consultancy firm, Bridge to India.

After the push in the first phase of the National Solar Mission from 2010 to 2013, the second phase is yet to take off, bogged down by confusion over duplication of capacity generation by the central government and various state governments.

India’s burgeoning growth has placed enormous demand on its energy resources. During the 11th Plan, the country added approximately 55,000 MW of power, yet there remained a deficit of 8.7%, while the 12th Plan (2012-17) further estimates demand to grow at 6.5% a year. The deficit thus grows, along with petroleum demands for rapid expansion which has made India hugely dependent on crude oil imports.

India’s solar power generation potential is enormous. According to research by Bridge to India, sunlight could produce 6.5 million terawatt hours (TWH) of solar power per year in India, six times the country’s current power requirement.

Installation of solar panels to produce 1,000 GW takes 16,000 square km of land, equivalent to 0.5% of India’s land mass, says the same research organisation.

The canal top power plant is now being proffered as a self-sufficiency model for other power-consuming industries to emulate. The builder can utilise the power while contributing to save carbon emissions, land and water consumption.

Many Indian cities could use nearby canals to generate power, said officials.

The managing director of SSNNL, S.S. Rathore told that the government could help with the money needed for such projects.

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