India is ‘Sunshine Country’, parts of it enjoying at least 250 sunny days every year. Traditionally, we have used solar power wisely and well: to make pickle, dry vegetables, fruit and grain. But India has been less diligent about using solar power to supply its energy needs. Why, considering India is estimated to need four to six times more energy by 2030?
In the next decade, India will need 10,000 MW more than its installed power capacity of 1,59648.49 MW. Are we finally ready to rely on solar power, an abundant, eco-friendly and inexhaustible resource? There are signs the Sunshine Country is thinking harder about solar power than ever before. On Thursday, Minister Of New And Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah helped commission the country’s biggest grid-connected solar power plant, in Yelesandra village in Karnataka’s Kolar district. In May, some 1,500 villagers in Elephanta Island got electricity for the first time from solar-powered lamps. Tirupati and Mt Abu use solar cookers to make prasadam and attempts are underway for solar powered schemes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep.
European, American and East Asian companies are poised to jump in once India demonstrates its seriousness about solar energy. It is badly needed, says Dr S Majumdar, senior counselor at the CII-ITC Centre for Excellence for Sustainable Development. By 2020, global installed solar power capacity is expected to be 20-40 times what it’s today. Where will the Sunshine Country stand on the league table of solar-powered nations?
That’s hard to predict because one of the chief drawbacks of getting solar energy on tap is the capital investment required. So far, the renewable resources ministry has focussed on the social development aspect, says Shirish Garud, fellow and area convenor of Renewable Energy Technology Applications at The Energy and Resources Institute.
Generating solar power is expensive — roughly Rs 15 to Rs 18 a unit, compared to thermal (coal) generation at Rs 1.50 to Rs 2 a unit, says Garud. Majumdar adds that solar projects are also dependent on imported material such as silicon wafers used to make solar cells and panels.
Even so, Garud admits that India, the Sunshine Country, should have focused on developing large-scale solar power projects, the way Germany did. It was only on January 11, that India launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission aimed to take installed grid capacity for solar energy to 20,000 MW by 2022.
But even this deadline 12 years on might be a dream too far. Garud says, “The high cost of solar devices, especially photovoltaic (PV), and limited budget have been the main constraints”.
As the experts point out, California is a good example of substantial R&D investment ensuring solar security.
But in India, there are scattered solar energy projects, such as Jadavpur University’s work on silicon thin film solar cells and Delhi College of Engineering developing the prototype of a solar car. Meanwhile, lone innovators plough their lonely furrough, such as 16-year-old Amandeep Singh from Hanumangarh in Rajasthan, who made his first prototype of a solar laminator in 2002 for a mere Rs 700.
Professor Anil Gupta of IIM, Ahmedabad, and executive vice chair of the National Innovation Foundation says India “has got locked in the PV cycle, which is costly. We didn’t try greenhouse innovations on a large scale, like China where a revolution has taken place through farmer innovations. Where are the funds for solar innovations? Or the fabrication labs, polytechnics and ITIs with courses on solar tech? Distribute mobile labs to provide fabrication facility to grassroots innovators and watch solar innovations increasing manifold.”
Gupta makes an important point. As every company awaiting its big chance knows, key opportunities lie in India to run water heaters, cookers, lanterns, street lights or water pumps off solar power. It is not enough for just a few households in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka to be using solar power for all these processes, says Garud, the marketing and manufacturing have to become big business and attract the urban and yuppie consumer.
Till that happens, it’s hard to see solar energy becoming a sunshine industry in India.