India's 40 GW solar rooftop target for 2022: A Kerala case study

Despite interest and potential in the state, the target remains a tall order

By Shweta Miriam Koshy
Published: Wednesday 12 February 2020

Kerala has anywhere between 130 and 140 megawatt (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, which includes big ticket projects like the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI)-owned 50 MW and Cochin airport’s 40 MW.

But the relatively small state of Kerala is quickly running out of land, especially to accommodate the space-intensive solar technology. Installing a solar PV to generate a single kilowatt (kW) requires 10 square metres of land.

Upcoming large-scale projects are instead looking at floating, dam-top and canal-top installations, in an attempt to utilise all available space.

An easier alternative for the land-constrained state would be to install smaller solar rooftop (SRT) systems. However, the SRT segment, as in the rest of India, has seen little progress.

“Today, there is approximately 40 MW of SRT and possibly another 20-30 MW that is not accounted for,” Aneesh Prasad, programme officer at Agency for Non-Conventional Energy and Rural Technology (Anert), said.

Anert’s dedicated programmes played a crucial role in the initial proliferation of SRT in the state. A case-in-point is the first ever ‘10,000 rooftop programme’ by Anert.

The programme began in 2013. Though pitched initially as a grid-connected programme, restrictions by the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) on central subsidy meant the programme looked at only ‘off-grid systems of 1 kW with battery backup’.

Unfortunately, the programme hit a roadblock, even before it started, with the ‘Kerala solar scam’ that came to light the same year. The general perception of the technology suffered, but Anert quickly took charge by conducting awareness drives in each of its individual districts.

To further improve the applicability and economics of off-grid systems, Anert added to the MNRE specifications by including parameters such as increased inverter efficiency, enhanced guarantee period for battery, and slapped on an additional state subsidy of 20 per cent.

The programme bounced back and was declared a success at its close in 2017, “having installed all 10,000 systems,” R Rajesh, programme officer at Anert, said.

Simultaneously, 2015 saw two new programmes — the ‘Solar Connect’ (grid-connected systems) and the ‘Solar Smart’ (off-grid systems) — introduced to overcome the capacity limits on the previous scheme. Off-grid systems could now go up to 5 kW while grid-connected systems could go up to 100 kW.

As of March, 2018, Anert had facilitated close to 30 MW of SRT (grid-connected and off-grid).

Mantle passes to KSEB

Unfortunately, the Centre’s ‘Phase–II of the Grid-Connected Rooftop Solar (GCRTS) Programme’ of 2019 is changing something that was just beginning to find its groove.

Under Phase II, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) will henceforth be responsible for both, installing SRT systems and disbursing subsidy. These were activities previously led by Anert.

Many consider this change in policy an important addition since across states, distribution companies have presented a visible barrier to SRT adoption. The hope is that incentivising KSEB could provide the SRT segment the necessary boost.

Currently, KSEB’s grid-connected SRT capacity is 39 MW, VK Joseph, chief engineer for Renewable Energy and Energy Savings at KSEB, said. Under its latest plan, the utility has set itself a target of 500 MW by 2022 — 150 MW of SRT from domestic and agriculture consumers, 250 MW on commercial and non-governmental buildings, and 100 MW on government buildings.

Undeterred by the task at hand, KSEB released its first tender of 200 MW and opened it to all consumer segments. “The tender offers 150 MW under the Renewable Energy Service Company model, and another 50 MW under the Capital Expenditure model,” Joseph said. The tender received an overwhelming response, indicating a strong demand for SRT in the state.

Will the residential sector pick up SRT?

Today, most installations are from the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector, who pick up SRT because of the obvious electricity bill savings. If redirected, these bill savings can help pay back a system in five-six years.

In contrast, the domestic consumers who are charged a lower tariff rate than C&I consumers, don’t witness the same bill savings explaining their tepid adoption rates. Retrospectively, the Centre, under Phase II, has removed all monetary support for the C&I sector (and other larger consumers). It has instead increased the percentage capital subsidy available to domestic consumers and also found a way to incentivise distribution companies.

KSEB serves over 1.2 crore consumers, of which 38.5 per cent are domestic consumers. The domestic consumers lack any tangible bill savings and therefore, require facilitating measures such as easier installation process and better servicing.

Till recently, applications for SRT took ages, sometimes even up to two years. These delays were due to a long-winded application process that required running from the state nodal agency to the utility to the developer; and, further delays on net-metering.

“For the same, Anert has introduced an online portal ‘Buy My Sun’ to ease purchasing and installing,” Prasad said. “Delays in providing net-metering alone went over 18 months and with the introduction of the online portal, have come down to three months,” he added.

Introduced in 2018, Buy My Sun, along with the Programme Management System and the m-Anert mobile app, has made SRT adoption transparent and incredibly easy to use. It connects customers with vendors and their products, distribution companies, empaneled installers and inspectors.

Everything, from buying an SRT system to its commissioning can now be done online. The success of the e-marketplace is hard to gauge just yet, but people in the know claim that the accessibility led to an uptick in applications.

To reduce occurrences of SRT failures that arose primarily from faulty inverters, support structures and cables rather than modules themselves, “Anert releases a list of empaneled developers, system integrators and service providers to ensure that prosumers have access to reliable facilitators,” Prasad added.

“To improve service, we have introduced ‘Urja Mithra - Akshaya Urja Service Centres’ in 140 constituencies to service solar prosumers, locally,” he said

Except the facility of an empaneled list, the others are relatively recent interventions and it is unclear if KSEB will utilise them. Under the Phase–II GCRTS, KSEB has been assigned a grant to develop a portal similar to Buy My Sun.

The effort will be redundant and funds misdirected. “We are in talks with KSEB to facilitate use of the existing e-market place for future programmes,” Prasad said.

But several months after the introduction of the ‘Phase II’ programme, there is no clarity.

Moreover, for consumers with shared or no suitable rooftops, procurement options such as open access of solar energy, virtual metering and group metering must be provided. The Kerala State Electricity Regulatory Commission (KSERC) confirmed that the latter two weren’t on their docket but a policy for open access was in place.

Unfortunately, despite a policy, the state has witnessed a fall in the number of open access consumers over the last year. In its annual report, KSEB reports that energy purchased by consumers through open access fell to 284.96 MU from 435.6 MU.

 “Inclusion of transmission, wheeling, cross-subsidy and additional grid support surcharge add Rs 2.50 per unit to the solar cost of generation, which reduces the economic viability of the project,” Prasad said.

The share of individual houses in Kerala is significant but the local architecture predominantly have slanting roofs and surrounding gardens mean that most roofs are shaded. If this crowd is to take up SRT, KSERC must introduce regulations that can allow placing the system elsewhere. Other states have also seen success with the introduction of building mandates, something for Kerala to consider.

But even with all the policies and regulations, the SRT segment cannot take off without the utility’s backing. There is a legacy of indifference by KSEB.

An industry insider, on the condition of anonymity, said, “KSEB has 6-7 on-ground teams responsible for a range of issues. However facilitating grid-connection of SRT systems does not feature on the top of their priority list.”

The hope is that under Phase II, the incentive promised could rearrange their priorities.

KSEB must rise to the occasion and the KSERC must provide the necessary backing to install 500 MW by 2022. With facilitative conditions, C&I are sure to take up SRT. Even government buildings and agricultural consumers are expected to contribute, what with the introduction of dedicated programmes and additional monetary support — Government Producer Scheme and the KUSUM scheme respectively.

The recent tender has shown that there is interest among consumers in Kerala.

“Even if 2 per cent (of the total 1 crore) of domestic consumers which fall in the highest-paying category installs an average of 2.5 kW rooftop system over the next 5 years, the total would be 500 MW. If 10 per cent of the highest tariff group — the commercial consumers opt for rooftop plants — around 300 MW can be installed,” R Harikumar, director of Anert, was quoted as saying.

Despite interest and potential, the 500 MW target under KSEB’s ‘Soura’ solar energy programme remains a tall claim.

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