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It is the country’s biggest initiative to make the most of sunny days. Initiated as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, the Solar Mission has propelled the country to new heights as far as clean energy is concerned. It is projected that by 2017, India will be among the top three solar markets

A rooftop solar panel installed by villages (Image by Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / DFID)

A rooftop solar panel installed by villages (Image by Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / DFID)

It was in 2006 that S.P. Gon Chaudhuri, a well-known renewable energy consultant, wrote the concept note on the Solar Mission and made a presentation to the then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, for the Rural Electrification Programme. At that time, he recalls, “The situation in the country, in terms of power in rural areas, was very grim and almost 60% of the rural populace had no electricity. So, in the initial plan, the aim was to provide power to the rural people. However, international pressure to reduce emissions, by 2009, led to the need for alternative sources of energy such as solar.”

In the same year, a 2 MW plant was inaugurated in Asansol, West Bengal by then renewable energy minister Farooq Abdullah. It was the first large size grid-connected solar power plant in the country. “This initiative created the base of large size grid connected solar power plant in the country,” he reveals.

According to Gon Chaudhuri, the aim behind the National Solar Mission was generation of solar power to reduce the consumption of coal and produce 2,000 MW of power for rural electrification. Large scale dissemination of solar power was also one of the objectives. “When the JNNSM (The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission) began in 2010, 10 MW and 5 MW capacity power plants came up in Rajasthan and Gujarat.  A shift to move away from small-sized power plants occurred when the new government came to power in 2014. It was decided that they will reduce the consumption of fossil fuels more by going for larger plants and a bigger target. That is how the National Climate Protection Programme was thought up and it was decided that 17, 5000 MW RE (Renewable Energy) power would be generated by 2022 and of this, 1 lakh MW will be generated from solar power.”

NAPCC & Solar Mission

According to the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), the National Solar Mission was launched “to significantly increase the share of solar energy in the total energy mix.”

Another aspect of the Mission was to launch a major R&D programme, which could draw upon international cooperation as well, to enable the creation of more affordable, more convenient solar power systems and to promote innovations that enable the storage of solar power for sustained, long term use.

In 2010, it was decided that 20,000 MW of solar power would be generated by 2022 (the last year of the 13th Five-Year Plan).

Paving the way for clean energy

Those involved in the country’s solar sector, be it the industry experts or manufacturers, are upbeat about its development and consistent progress over the years.

Siddharth Malik, CEO, Megawatt Solutions, believes that irrespective of the actual targets set and practical achievements, the NAPCC has played a major role as a stimulator for Indian economy for adopting renewables and specifically solar. “Its role cannot be undermined in the wake of the fact that until a few years ago, solar was given a feed-in-tariff and today it is stand-alone competitive without substantial government support.”

Power being a state subject, there are issues which need to be dealt with and will be done in due course of time, but no one can undermine the snow-ball effect of the awareness campaign that has spread its roots to remotest parts of India, Malik adds.

Concurring, Raveesh Budania of Headway Solar, which provides consulting services for the Indian solar market, feels that NAPCC’s target of increasing the share of renewable energy is still the main driver for policymaking related to solar and imposition of renewable purchase obligation (RPO) on major distribution companies and similar entities. “Without these RPO targets, we wouldn’t have seen allocation of funds (from National Clean Energy Fund) to support economically unviable solar energy.”

The sunrise sector will also aid in graduating towards a cleaner economy. Malik says, “Solar thermal heating can play a major role in transition to a carbon-neutral economy, since it is more competitive than solar power and can address emissions pain point for commercial & industrial market segments.”

Ritesh Pothan, Director, Natural Group, a solar and RE focused consulting organization, believes that the success of the solar mission can be credited to a number of factors, including a drop in the prices of panels globally. “Moreover, engineering efficiency has increased, making solar a contender to replace almost all forms of energy.” Solar now competes on an equal footing with other conventional energy sources. The government is looking to deploy 15GW via India’s largest energy PSU (Public Sector Undertaking) along with other large mega scale developments.

However, he feels that the real solution lies around the storage of energy once India has exhausted the 41GW Hydro Battery which can mainline solar into the grid.

Gaining ground

In terms of implementation, Gon Chaudhuri believes that there has been a remarkable change from small to large power plants. For instance, the biggest one of 150 MW has come up in Madhya Pradesh. Also on the anvil is a 750 MW plant also at MP by Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. “From 1 to 2 MW, owing to international pressure, we moved to 5 to 10 MW and then very large solar power plants. This has been the transition in the solar energy sector.”

Apart from the industry, households have a tremendous potential in rooftop solar. In cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad, roof top solar is gaining ground and coming in a big way. “I believe that if you involve people, it will bring in a lot of change. This is something which has also been stated in the NAPCC.” Around 1 KWH of solar can help to save 0.7 kg of CO2.

Srinivas Krishnaswamy from Vasudha Foundation argues that rooftop solar installations need a bigger push in India where availability of land is limited and there is this fear of giant solar projects displacing people from arable lands and destroying biodiversity.

Owing to shortage of land in India, yet another emerging trend is that of a floating plant. A 1 MW plant needs around four acres of land. So, if we can develop solar floating technology, it can benefit the country immensely, Krishnaswamy adds. Gon Chaudhuri has set up India’s first floating solar power plant in a water body near Kolkata. Maharashtra is also racing to build India’s first solar farm on a dam wall.

Solar parks

Yet another initiative, announced by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, to set up ultra-mega solar power projects in 25 solar parks, has been welcomed by the industry. Budania feels the solar park model will accelerate capacity addition, because it will establish the infrastructure required for large photovoltaic cell installations – mainly, suitable land and grid connectivity. The project developers will have to bother less about the challenges related to acquiring and converting suitable land, and thereby, larger projects could be set up in less time. He goes on to add that it will not impact the cost of generation as much as it is popularly perceived – “we estimate approximately 3-7% decrease in the bid tariffs due to this factor.”

While Raj Prabhu, CEO and co-founder, Mercom Capital Group, a cleantech research and communications firm,  agrees that ultra-mega projects in solar parks seem to provide a solution to the land and infrastructure issues faced by developers, he feels they are still under construction and the finer points, like the final cost implication for the developers and the grid stability with large MW solar power being connected, is yet to be observed. However, he’s sure it will help to achieve the 100 GW installation goal if project costs can come down due to economies of scale realized through such large projects.

Government’s role

According to Budania, “The government needs to focus more on establishing and smoothing a free market in this segment. Secondly, it should have a long-term plan for upstream capacity building in-house, and this might be the right time as the global prices are stabilizing. Thirdly, focusing on skill development could make India the global downstream leader.”

Completely doing away with subsidies would help the distributed generation market – residential and industrial rooftops, and policy makers are already taking steps in the right direction. Smoothing the transition of net-metering adoption in the market is another important aspect.

Stressing that execution is going to be the key, Prabhu reasons that the most impactful policy support which the government can provide to help the solar industry take off and bring in investments is to fix the financial health of power distribution companies and improve the credit rating of off takers and bring renewables under the priority lending sector category.

The road ahead

The MNRE has proposed a subsidy cut on rooftop solar power plants from 30 to 15%, reasoning that the lower price of components would offset the proposed subsidy reduction. Individual states have been asked to come out with their own favourable policy and regulatory framework to support rooftop solar. This proposal comes in the background of another goal set by the government to target 40 GW of grid-connected rooftop solar over the next five years.

However, Ritesh Pothan feels that “this has resulted in the rooftop segment being sidelined whereas mega scale PV projects which could create dissonance in the grid are being promoted by most states. Also, while the focus has been on grid scale plants, solar really shines in the distributed energy segment.”

Budania adds that as far as the off-grid segment is concerned, the market potential is huge, and remains untapped. Countless studies have been done on energy access through distributed generation, and many start-ups in this space have proven the outcome of these studies right. “Policymakers have tried hard to in the past, but results of the measures taken by the government have not been up to the mark. We hope that we learn from countries such as Bangladesh in this aspect.”

Pothan feels that yet another energy medium of solar, water heating, which is capable of driving tremendous energy efficiency and reducing peak load, has also been relegated to the no subsidy zone. “There has to be a tremendous push from the government in the Solar PV Rooftop and Water Heating to make India an energy secure and healthy country,” he concludes.

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