The Solar Frontier

Written by Asma Siddiqui  •  Features  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

With energy needs on the rise, India is fast emerging as a leader in solar power generation.

India is one of the most populous countries of the world. With a rising population, the country’s energy demands have also accentuated, posing new challenges for India, to fulfill the needs of its energy starved urban population. India’s economic growth is expected to overtake that of China within the next three years. India’s English-speaking middle class is increasing annually with over 125 million English speakers and an expected increase in the middle class from 50 million to 583 million by 2025. This will significantly impact consumer demands for electricity and is likely to provide opportunities for foreign investment in infrastructure and technology. According to recent estimates, nearly 400 million people in India do not have access to electricity.

India is the third largest electricity consumer in Asia, after the People’s Republic of China and Japan, and demand has grown at an average of 8% per year since 1995. However, supply falls well below demand, leading to regular blackouts and electricity shortages which are understating the country’s economic and social development. Moreover, much of the electricity is generated from increasingly uncertain domestic sources of coal or from imported coal.

India is a tropical country where sunshine is available for longer hours per day and in great intensity. Solar energy, therefore, has great potential. According to a report published by the WorldWatch Institute, India is among the fastest growing nations, after China, Brazil and the U.S., in the renewable energy sector with investments rising to 62 per cent - the highest growth rate for any single country over 2010. The solar power program, now a part of the National Action Plan for Climate Change, began as an off-grid clean energy source to enhance self-sufficiency and reduce the consumption of kerosene, particularly in the rural areas.

While it was initially promoted as a means to achieve energy security, it now helps in mitigating the impact of climate change. The Remote Village Electrification Program (RVEP) began in 2001 by the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), later renamed as the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) in 2006.

In 2009, the Indian Government allocated US$932 million to expand its solar power infrastructure through the Nehru National Solar Mission. The program is one of eight national strategies to address climate change, and is a bid to secure the country’s energy supply and contribute to its ‘ecological security.’

Under the country’s ambitious solar program, the National Solar Mission (NSM), India has jumpstarted its solar energy industry, fostering growth in both photovoltaic (PV) projects and CSP, also known as solar thermal. Before the Mission began, CSP projects only provided 8.5 megawatts (MW) of energy. India’s large-scale CSP projects currently provide a projected 500 MW of clean, reliable energy under the NSM. Given the short time frame of the Mission, these numbers are impressive, but India has a long way to go in fostering a sustainable solar energy market. CSP projects involve systems of mirrors that focus a large area of sunlight onto a small area of contained liquid. The liquid after heating up, emits steam, and a turbine and electrical power generator converts that steam into electricity.CSP would help India meet its base-load energy needs and could be called upon for supplemental electricity during times of peak usage.

As of June 2012, 31 percent of India’s energy came from renewable resources, including hydroelectric power. In a 2009 survey, McKinsey & Company rated India as the top producer of solar energy in the world, just above the U.S., with an annual yield of 1,700 to 1,900 kilowatt hours per kilowatt peak (kWh/KWp). In addition, India has one of the world’s largest solar cooking venues in Tirupati, which provides food for more than 15,000 people each day.

The Indian Government’s Twelfth five-year plan starting from 2012-17 also targets a capacity grid connected solar power addition of 10 GW.  Out this 10 GW target, 4 GW would fall under the central scheme and the remaining 6 GW under various state specific schemes. During Phase-II, it is envisaged that the development of Off-Grid electricity generation projects will cover around 20,000 villages/hamlets/basti/padas through the ‘Energy Access’ scheme. Additionally, a Deployment Target of 10 Lakh (1 Million) exists for off-grid lighting systems. Phase II of JNNSM would focus on the development of solar cities, which will lead to the inclusion of more cities under the project.

There are plans to formulate special schemes to promote the use of solar telecom towers, which would target around 25,000 solar integrated telecom towers. Phase II would target at-least 15-20 cities where solar water heaters would heat water to replace electric geysers. Considering the progress of Phase I, it is anticipated that Phase II would target 8 million square metres of collector area by the end of 2017. 

Asma Siddiqui is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues.
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