It’s Time for India to get Serious About Solar

600 million people without power – and those were the ones expecting to have power. I’m not going to join the chorus of critical voices reacting to two of the world’s largest power black-outs this week in India. While surely there is ample blame to go around, it’s not really clear what happened. It could have been the lack of infrastructure investment, the light monsoon weather causing farmers to use more electricity for pumping irrigation water or states taking more than their allotted share of electricity from the grid. But one thing is clear, this power outage ground India’s economy to a halt, left 10% of the world’s population without power and rolled through 22 of India’s 28 states. And that’s not counting the 300 million people there who have no regular access to electricity.

The electricity crisis this week will certainly bring India’s energy problem into the forefront so this a great time to rethink and recommit to solar being a larger part of the energy mix. Although the National Solar Mission has a goal of 20GW of solar installed by 2020, the goal is relatively modest given that India currently faces an 8-12% energy deficit at peak times and is estimated to need to add between 600-1200 GW of generating capacity before 2050 (that’s 20-40GW/year). Solar can contribute immediately and significantly to meeting India’s urgent and growing energy needs.

 In fact, in a recent solar energy survey conducted by Applied, more than half of respondents in India voiced concern that the country’s renewable energy goals were too slow.  Solar can contribute immediately and significantly to meeting India’s urgent and growing energy needs.    

Among all the options India has to deal with its energy crisis, “betting” on solar is among the safest plays it can make:

(1) It’s available now. Solar panels are readily available and rapidly deployable. Globally, there remains a significant overcapacity of production for solar panels. That means they are widely available and competitively priced, especially if the Indian government were to make some significant investments in long term supply contracts. Second, it is faster to get solar power into production than any other form of energy. A 500MW plant could be constructed in less than a year, whereas a nuclear power plant could take anywhere from 5-10 years to complete. Traditional coal or gas turbine power plant construction moves at a glacial pace compared to solar construction. India needs energy now and solar delivers.

(2) It’s distributed. Maybe it’s time for India to leap frog beyond the traditional power grid system just as Africa and Asia skipped the wire-based telephone networks and moved straight to cell phone connectivity. Solar power can be a valuable form of distributed generation – rooftops, commercial applications, replacement for back-up generators at large industrial facilities, and micro-grid power plants. Solar enables you to get energy to highly rural, non-grid connected locations. Using solar to meet the emergent energy demand would not require solving the “grid infrastructure” problems before help arrives. While they work on improving the grid, massive new sources of energy could already be in production.

(3) It works best when you need it the most. Solar works best when the sun is at its hottest, meaning that it can help carve off the peak demand spikes that loom over every utility. By softening those spikes, there is more time and energy for rationally deploying baseload capabilities. And peak demand spikes are only expected to worsen as more Indians move into the middle class and purchase air conditioning units for those long, host Indian summers.

(4) It’s affordable and getting cheaper all the time. The average solar irradiation in India is 1500-2000 hours a year, which makes India one of the best places on the planet for harvesting solar energy. Solar panel prices have fallen 70% over the last three years and scale and technology in the industry are continuing to drive down costs. Indian utilities are in an excellent position to negotiate highly desirable pricing for major solar deployments, while the government can focus on enabling smaller communities and homeowners to benefit from rooftop installations that are free from the grid.

(5) And it’s clean. Diesel generators which are widely used as back-up to grid power are huge polluters, terrible for human health, and significantly more expensive to operate than solar.

Fast, cost effective, reliable, distributed clean energy generation. Solar is ideal for India.

Of course, the single biggest hurdle to the Indian National Solar Mission is the funding. 10 GW of Solar in the 5th plan requires $20 billion in funding – resources that India just does not have. The real challenge is not that of imports or of safe-guard duties. If the regulators implement a technology neutral policy that promotes free and fair trade – and if they focus on the financial enablers, they can find one of the greenest solutions to the Indian energy equation.

Of course, solar is only part of the solution to the energy crisis in India (and it doesn’t work at 3am when the first blackout hit). But it no longer should be treated as a niche or “alternative” energy solution. Solar has earned its place at the grown-up table. Solar energy powered 50% of Germany’s midday electricity needs on May 26, 2012 – producing >22GW of energy. That’s the equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants.

If solar can supply half the energy needs of the world’s 4th largest economy on a given day, it could certainly play a bigger role in India’s energy future.

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