The case study of the Sun

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Can solar energy power India’s future? Samrat Chakrabarti and Avalok Langer find out

Harvesting the sun Large solar farms could be the new energy frontier
Photo: AFP

MANAK SINGH, 25, runs Kool Breweries Ltd, a mediumscale beer brewing and bottling plant for Kingfisher in Haryana. Manak has power on his mind. “I have an energy need of 800-850 KVA for my plant. I don’t have an electricity connection. I use 65,000 litres of diesel per month to run my plant during the peak beer season.” Not a sustainable plan but Manak has a better idea. “I want to move to solar energy. I have about 11 acres, enough to produce solar energy for my plant,” he says.

For solar energy, one needs two primary resources — dependable sunshine and land. India has both. Even if it utilises a tenth of the 12.5 percent landmass available (in theory) for solar energy, it would produce eight million MW per year, eight times India’s projected energy need in 2030.

Realising India’s solar potential, the government launched the National Solar Mission in 2008, an initiative to address the nation’s energy security through solar power. The objective is to kickstart a vibrant solar energy market by addressing both demand and supply, through a system of incentives, financing, R&D and capacity-building in manufacturing. With experts predicting that India is likely to run out of its 60-70 billion tonnes of coal reserves by 2040, the mission has set 20,000 MW of solar energy as its 2022 target and production parity with conventional thermal power (over 1 million MW) by 2030.

According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the expected investment in solar energy in India between 2012-17 is $27 billion. When the government made its plans public in 2008, the solar mission was praised by most quarters, including the likes of Greenpeace, for its boldness of vision and statement of intent. Two-and-a-half years later, a few concerns have emerged. Srinivas Krishnaswamy, director of the green NGO Vasudha Foundation, says, “One concern is the large emphasis on grid-fed solar power as opposed to decentralised, distributed solar. Fortyfive percent of our households, by the government’s own figures, are without electricity despite the country adding 32,000 MW through conventional means in the past 10 years. Why? Because grid power isn’t same as access. By focussing on off-grid solar, we have a real opportunity to electrify our villages.”

Sensing the off-grid revenue potential in India’s bottom-of-the-pyramid sector, private players have started moving in. Studies suggest that off-grid solar home systems and solar lanterns have an annual market potential of Rs 126.85 crore.

The need for the off-grid component of solar power is not restricted to energy reach and revenue potential alone. According to the government’s conservative estimates, we lose 30 percent of our grid power due to transmission and distribution loss that off-grid solar energy would bypass completely.

Though the National Solar Mission is a progressive step, the government must play a more enabling role. It is only the government incentives that make solar power an option for medium players like Manak. While the Haryana government will take care of half of Manak’s infrastructural costs (Rs 1 crore), other states like Gujarat and Rajasthan are leading the solar incentives race. Srinivas believes that to pave the way towards a solar future, the government needs to follow a clear-cut path, otherwise “solar energy might become yet another excuse for land grabbing”.

Samrat Chakrabarti is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
samrat@tehelka.com 
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
avalok@tehelka.com

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