Millennium Post

Big push to generate solar power

India has embarked upon utopian goals and mega dreams. It wants to become the hub of global investment and manufacturing and plans to create 100 smart cities, starting with Delhi. All these goals will require massive energy production and consumption.

One of the primary challenges is  to alter India’s existing energy mix, which is dominated by highly-polluting coal (though coal power is 50 per cent cheaper). The government must allocate a greater share of cleaner sources of sustainable energy. At present, coal powers 60 per cent of our electricity requirements. The Government is fast tracking renewable energy projects, with the prime focus on solar power. Mega and ultra-mega (a single scheme with over 500 MW capacity) schemes are being launched. The emphasis is also on wind power, though on a lesser scale.

India’s renewable energy (RE) potential is estimated to be more than 3,000 GW. Of this, only 29.8 GW–or less than one per cent-has been tapped. The plan is to more than double the share of renewable energy sources to the nation’s fuel consumption, such as solar and wind, from the current 6 to 15 per cent, in the next five years. The share of solar energy will be raised to 10 per cent.
Solar energy generation has been given a big push, precisely five years after the National Solar Mission (NSW) was launched in January 2010.

The mission’s target was to produce 20,000 MW (20 gigawatt or GW) by 2020. Despite going past the half way mark, national renewable energy production in India is quite disappointing, with just over 3,000 MW projects commissioned. Gujarat continues to lead the way (929 MW) followed by Rajasthan (839 MW), Madhya Pradesh (354 MW) and Maharashtra (287 MW).

The decision to boost production has two key reasons. The country needs abundant energy to cater to 600 million people, who are deprived of electricity. Its total power consumption is estimated to double to two trillion units by 2019. Secondly, it is under great pressure to reduce carbon emission. India is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US.

Experts predict that levels of carbon pollution will radically increase as its economy expands in the coming decades. India has to take a tough and decisive stance to strike a balance between economic development and environmental sustainability.  However, its stand on environmental goals continue to be ambiguous. It is yet to take a pledge on reductions in carbon emissions, despite mounting pressure from the United Nations and international environmental organisations. US President Barak Obama is bound to nudge Prime Minister Modi to make India’s intentions clear during his visit on January 26. If not now, India shall have to promise at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December this year to curtail emissions, expected to grow 34 per cent by 2020. Emissions will double by 2030 under the existing policies.

Recently, the Centre has catapulted solar power production by 33 times to 100, 000 MW (100 GW) by 2022. This would require an investment of $100 billion; quite a tall order. The Government is banking on companies from China, Japan, Germany and the United States to lead investments over seven years to boost capacity.

With adequate financing, solar projects can be set up in a year. But solar and wind power deployment is a major issue, since it requires building a grid infrastructure. Currently, we lack transmission facilities, including sub-stations and transmission lines with proper voltage levels. Transmission projects take five years. Adding greater generation capacity without grid infrastructure is like adding more vehicles without constructing roads.

Solar power generation is extremely land-intensive. It may be hard to find vast tracts of contiguous land, since one MW solar power requires five acres. Solar panels are laid in a cluster of 25 acres to produce 5 MW.  To generate 500 MW, nearly 51 sq. km (12,500 acres) would be required.

Also, there is a plethora of issues, primarily concerning land and equity. This would include acquiring various types of land, including those that fall under the Forest Act. Will the ordinance on land acquisition have the desired impact? Can it ride over other existing acts pertaining to land?
Land may or may not be available in certain inhabitable areas. Questions surrounding the construction of grids and inter-linking it with distant plants for power evacuation and transmission remain unanswered. For maximum solar irradiation (300 days a year), solar parks are set up in desert regions especially Gujarat and Rajasthan, where water is perennially scarce. Water is required to drench the solar panels as these get heated and gather dust, which affects efficiency.

Besides, there may be problems related to the use of hazardous chemicals to manufacture solar cells or modules, and health and occupational safety of workers at solar manufacturing units.

Also, confusion reigns on rooftop solar power generation. The government’s initiative to lead by example in covering their building’s rooftops with solar plants, so as to encourage residential owners, has not yet seen the light of day. The cost of production per unit is still high, around Rs 7.50. Despite subsidies issued by the government, infrastructure costs are prohibitive.

The concept of net billing mechanism that credits solar energy system to owners for the electricity they add to the grid is largely unknown. Tobias Engelmeier, MD of environment consulting firm ‘Bridge to India’, says, “Rooftop has not yet taken off, because the subsidy mechanism was misconstrued and counterproductive. The economics are just beginning to make sense and there is a huge cost associated with shifting to solar.”

To overcome all this and to build a ‘‘Green India’’ through harnessing abundant solar radiation and to achieve energy security for the country, the Government will surely require a magic wand.

The author is an independent journalist
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