It is good that the Government had taken a mega initiative on the renewable energy source. From the reports, World Bank had sanctioned a loan of $1 billion, for FY 2017. Of this $625 million was reserved for grid connected rooftop solar power plants. Considering the cost of $1 million for a solar plant of 1MW capacity, a total of 1GW capacity could be added. For all practical considerations, we consider the plant would be set up at about 1.15MWp capacity to have 1MW AC output as peak rating.
Another $750 million was sanctioned by IFC, the private arm of the World Bank to setup a solar park near Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.
Here is the catch, unlike the thermal or hydro power plant that produces energy continuously at rated capacity, electricity generated from wind farm and solar panels depends on the environment and is not only infirm, but also inconsistent. As the energy generated from a solar power plant of 1MW capacity is only 18%, practical output from these plants is less. If a thermal power plant of 1MW capacity produces 24,000 units of electricity in a day, solar plant of equal capacity produces anywhere between 4000 to 6000 units depending on the location and season. So, capital cost of setting up a solar power plant to produce same amount of electricity is nearly 4 to 6 times.
Considering the cost of operation and maintenance of solar plant are negligible, it still makes sense to go for solar, especially when the coal availability is reducing and air pollution is increasing. The government has an ambitious target to setup solar plants of 100GW capacity, by the year 2022. The WBG is also backing the India-led International Solar Alliance which aims to promote solar use globally by mobilizing $1 trillion in investments by 2030 Current capacity of solar plants in India is about 5GW, but increasing rapidly. Still, this is an ambitious target. For 100GW capacity, the capex needed would be to the tune of $100 billion and we are talking about huge money, and that too mostly in foreign currency as nearly eighty percent of the cost is towards solar panels and inverters.
Now, there are few problems.
- Land – Roughly 4 Lac acres of land would be needed. Even if the Government plans to mushroom roof top installations, land would be required in lacs of acres.
2. Panel manufacturing – It is difficult to setup even the assembly units in India, to have the same quality. In this, China was way ahead supplying more than 90% of solar panels to the world. Due to labour costs all European and American manufacturers have setup shops in China or outsource from there. This is only to note that public cannot expect increase in the job opportunities. But, jobs would increase as manpower is needed for erection. Though steel demand would go up, one may expect some of the closed shops to be reopened to make light weight structures, but quality would always remain a question mark.
3. Stability of existing power plants – This would be the major concern over a period of time. As the government is planning to setup almost all of solar installations to be grid connected, power swings will be experienced on the thermal power plants that are supposed to supply the FIRM power. These frequent load variations will affect boilers very badly and maintenance costs would increase and plant’s overall reliability itself would decrease.
4. To evacuate the electricity generated from the solar power plants, transmission networks need to be strengthened and expanded at a rapid rate. And this calls for considerable investment, as transmission network is weak, in the areas where land is cheap and radiation is high.
All in all, despite these hiccups, going for solar, on a long term basis would be good. However, it is better if the government studies how the mobile revolution affected India.
Case Study of Telecom Sector:
People from earlier generation may still remember the long queues before STD booths, once upon a time. Owning an STD booth was a profitable business venture two decades ago. Even then, phone was a costly appliance before mobiles came up. Post economic reforms, when the purchase capacity of people had increased as they could afford to get a land line, they could never have got phones, as the hardware infrastructure that was needed to setup telephone exchanges in all towns. Though fibre optic cable was available, the cost was Rs. 1000 to Rs. 1500 per metre. Now it is available for Rs. 50 to Rs. 100.
Then came the mobile revolution and the telephone exchanges were not required to expand to enable common man to use phone.
It was noted that the investment United States had incurred in connecting all telephone subscribers was not needed in India, as telephone had become a common man’s appliance only after the mobile revolution happened.
Coming back to Solar:
What the government should learn from the Telecom Revolution so that the Solar Revolution will succeed?
First, it is a wastage to invest in unnecessary infrastructure for transmission of electricity. Rather, all new electrifications, especially the village electrifications may be planned by small-grids that are independent of the main grid. They may run in island mode. How, then the infirm generation of electricity could cater to the requirements of full day (including night).
The answer lies in storage systems. A new technological revolution in energy storage is on the anvil. Regular batteries may have to give way to these new devices. As of now, even Mitsubishi makes efficient storage system (simply put hi-efficiency batteries). With the energy storage systems the investment of solar plant would increase, but considering the costs that are needed to setup in transmission of electricity to the tune of 100GW, it may be prudent to go for small, islanded grids. Even the transmission loss that officially are 23%, but may be far more than that could be avoided.
Another practice that started happening is to eliminate the inverter and use the electricity at 24VDC level. Though this could be used for most primitive of the equipment, changing the standard of utility power from 220VAC for household consumption would lead to chaos. Or asking the villagers not to use any washing machine or refrigerator simply amounts to discrimination.
Now, to compensate the infirmity that is intrinsic to the solar plant, it shall always be coupled with a wind mill, sized depending on the electricity requirement of each village. Solar energy coupled with wind energy could provide electricity to each village in a sustainable way. The important point is each village will not be on the mercy of the state discoms that arbitrarily provide electricity to small villages, as per the whims and fancies of political masters.
As the power ministry is already considering to try rooftop solar plants with storage systems, it would be in the interests of the nation, if this thoroughly studied (not for years like judicial commissions) and considered for implementation.