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Solar power: India lets the sunshine in

21 December 2011




India has embarked on an epic national programme to become the world leader in solar power over the next decade. Chris Lo explores the ins and outs of the country's solar mission and asks if its ambitious goals can be met by 2022.


There are very few countries in the world where solar power has a greater potential than India. With a huge landmass and an average of 300 sunny days a year, India theoretically provides five trillion kilowatt-hours of clean and renewable solar power available every year across its length and breadth - enough to electrify the nation dozens of times over.

A large proportion of India's massive population is also crying out for electricity, driving the need for reliable sources of energy to bring power to the estimated 80,000 unelectrified rural villages (and 400 million people) across the country.

The cheapest option in the short-term would be to satisfy this demand by commissioning macro-scale ultra mega power plants (UMPPs), coal-fired power plants with capacities of 4,000MW or more that can provide power for the cheapest possible prices through economies of scale.

Indeed, India has begun work on several of these monolithic facilities. But in the long-term, India's Government knows this is not the sustainable solution. Huge fossil fuel-based plants will only power the nation and the world as long as the resources exist to run them, and those resources are running dry.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission

"India is taking a long-term view of its power situation, embracing the potential of solar power with an epic national programme."

Fortunately, India is taking a long-term view of its power situation, embracing the potential of solar power with an epic national programme that could put those of all other countries in the shade.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), part of India's National Action Plan on Climate Change, was launched in November 2009 with the overriding goal of bringing 20GW of installed solar power online by 2022.

The sheer audacity of this project is emphasised by data from the International Energy Agency, which predicts global solar capacity in 2022 will be just 27GW. This means India potentially plans to take charge of three quarters of the world's solar power generation in just over a decade's time.

Discussing the role of solar power in India's plan to tackle climate change and improve power distribution in 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh highlighted just how important the sun is to the country's energy future.

"In this [clean energy] strategy, the sun occupies centre-stage, as it should, being literally the original source of all energy," said Singh.

"We will pool our scientific, technical and managerial talents, with sufficient financial resources, to develop solar energy as a source of abundant energy to power our economy and to transform the lives of our people. Our success in this endeavour will change the face of India."

As well as reaching its ambitious 20GW capacity milestone (which is intended to be achieved in three strategic phases), JNNSM intends to improve the domestic solar manufacturing industry, with a particular emphasis on solar thermal technology. The country is also planning to promote solar power as an off-grid power solution for disconnected rural communities and install around 20 million solar lighting systems in villages nationwide.

Financing the JNNSM

These hugely ambitious plans will require a colossal collective effort on the parts of the Indian Government, the private sector and the international community. After all, with less than 20MW of Indian solar power actually installed today, the lofty goals of 2022 seem an awfully long way off.

To play its part in solving an environmental crisis it has done little to create, India understandably expects considerable financial aid from the western countries that have caused it.

An initial Indian investment of around $20bn has been scrapped in favour of placing most of the costs onto the West. "In order to achieve its renewable energy targets, the Indian Government expects international financing as well as technology at an affordable cost," said Leena Srivastava, executive director of the Energy and Resources Institute, at the time of JNNSM's launch in 2009.

The Indian Government is playing a risky game by exposing its vast and vulnerable plan to the vagaries of international aid and market forces, but since 2009 some highly encouraging steps have been made, on both government and industry levels. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's visit to India in July 2011 brought with it an announcement of $820 million of investment in the country's clean energy projects by the end of 2011.

In November, the UK Government announced it would be providing £6 million to bring down solar costs and stimulate private investment in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

"The £6m will reduce the risks for investors in solar power technologies and generate an estimated £265m in private sector investment," commented UK Climate Change Minister Greg Barker.

The private sector is playing its own part in drumming up investment for India's solar vision. Last month saw the encouraging announcement that SunEdison, the solar development unit of US technology company MEMC Electronic Materials, had secured $110 million from foreign and Indian funds to complete 50MW of solar power projects in 2011 and 2012.

Solar pricing

A key contributor to the success of solar technology will be the ability to sell solar-generated electricity at the same price as that which comes from fossil fuel. To achieve this, the project costs involved with solar power production must come down. In this respect India seems confident, bringing forward its deadline for price-competitiveness between solar and traditional power from 2022 to 2017.

"A steady stream of new projects is helping India to build solar momentum as it works towards its 2022 goal."

India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy Joint Secretary Tarun Kapoor said the decision was taken because of a number of factors improving solar power's prospects.

"Some big names from India have proved that a large investment will soon be possible in solar projects, as huge as 2,000 megawatts," he said.

"There are other reasons as well. Internationally, the price of solar cells has come down and with improved technology, the cost of operation as a whole has been reduced, thereby increasing the efficiency."

Solar prices aren't only coming down because of important investments and tech improvements, however. India is also taking a proactive stance on driving prices down with an auction system that forces companies bidding for projects to compete with one another on the price at which they will sell electricity once a project is completed.

This is leading to some incredibly competitive pricing offers. At India's most recent auction earlier in December, French solar specialist Solairedirect made a bid to sell photovoltaic (PV) electricity for $147 per megawatt-hour, a 30% reduction on the current average price for solar electricity around the world.

Investing in new projects

A steady stream of new projects is helping India to build solar momentum as it works towards its 2022 goal. At this stage of the programme the projects remain fairly small. The hope is that these projects will exponentially increase in size over the next decade as costs go down, market confidence goes up and the pool of workforce skills and expertise benefits from the experience of the early projects.

Similarly, the Indian solar market is tapping the knowledge of solar power producers from Europe and other parts of the world through partnerships and joint venture deals between domestic and international companies.

These can be permanent, like the alliance of BP Solar and leading Indian utility Tata Power to form Tata BP Solar way back in 1989.

More commonly companies look to partner for single projects or to develop multiple projects. In summer 2011, Indian renewable energy producer Astonfield linked up with Spanish-based solar producer T-Solar develop PV projects throughout India.

The first will be Astonfield's 5MW solar PV project in the town of Osiyan, Rajasthan, for which T-Solar's newest a-Si:H thin film PV modules will be used (thin film PV has been highlighted by some experts as preferable to crystalline PV as the more 'battle worthy' technology in India's hot and humid conditions).

The comments of both Astonfield and T-Solar at the time of their partnership identified India as a major solar player, especially at a time when projects in Europe and the US are entangled in a web of pricing and technology concerns.

T-Solar's CEO Juan Laso called the Indian solar sector "one of the key strategic growth markets for T-Solar", while Astonfield co-chairman Sourabh Sen added: "As the European solar markets cool, leading global solar players continue to look towards rapidly growing solar markets, particularly India."

From macro to micro: small-scale projects

"To achieve renewable energy targets, the Indian Government expects international financing and technology at affordable prices."

Achieving the goals of JNNSM isn't just about creating huge solar plants with ever-increasing capacity. It's also about harnessing the collective power of installations on the smallest scale.

As India gets such an extraordinary amount of sunshine, it is often economical to install solar modules on the tiniest scale, making solar technology a perfect fit to bring electricity to the millions of Indians who are stranded outside the country's grid.

A number of companies are proving the effectiveness (and affordability) of rural solar systems with a host of projects. Bangalore-based SELCO, for example, has installed 115,000 small-scale solar systems and solar lamps since it was founded in 1995, bringing reliable power to remote villages and schools around the country.

The company is also well-known for making these systems affordable for low-income families with financing packages that can potentially be cheaper than buying the kerosene that has traditionally been relied upon.

The quest to make solar power work on the micro end of the scale is also driving innovative ideas and technology. It's no coincidence that the floating Liquid Solar Array, developed by Australian company Sunengy, is getting a pilot project in India in partnership with Tata Power.

Sunengy's system, which is based on concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technology, uses cells that float on water and track the sun as it moves across the sky. The technology is primarily indicated to complement existing hydropower facilities.

At its core, the fate of India's grand solar vision rests on investment - in projects, in local expertise, in new, more efficient technologies. India's move to have the international community foot the bill for its solar campaign might be a justifiable one, but it casts uncertainty over the programme's future.

To meet the country's capacity goals by 2022, governments, development banks and the private sector will have to work together like never before. It will be a Herculean task, but if successful it could truly live up to Prime Minister Singh's expectations and change the face of India, and the world, forever.

Small-scale solar systems bringing power to villages where connecting to the grid is difficult.
Solar power is a perfect fit for India because of its extraordinary sun coverage.
India is even installing solar panels around major monuments and historical buildings.