India’s power mess

Solar energy could be the silver bullet

By Shuba V Raghavan
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Shuba V RaghavanOver the past several months, the power situation in the country has reached dire straits. Media reports that blackouts lasting 10 hours a day are forcing small-scale industries to either shut down or operate partially; textile mills in Tamil Nadu and the manufacturing sector in Andhra Pradesh are examples. Operating heavy machineries for long hours on diesel is prohibitively expensive apart from being highly polluting. Alongside are reports that at least six natural gas-based power plants are idling in Andhra Pradesh due to shortage of gas. Elsewhere in the country, the hours of operation of several coal-based power plants have fallen drastically due to short supply of fuel. This is a new crisis level for India’s already battered power sector. 2012, the year by which the 400 million who are burning kerosene for lighting were to get at least 1 kWh of electricity a day to meet their basic needs, has gone by. This was under the landmark programme, Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), of the power ministry. The grid has been extended without electricity reliably flowing through it and the folks are out of the government’s radar for now.

A look at coal-based power generation can tell part of the story and why things have gone wrong. Fifty-seven per cent of the total installed capacity (120 out of the total 211 giga Watts or GW) in the power sector is by coal-based plants which contribute over 70 per cent of the net electricity generated. To reduce the emissions from coal generation, many of the new plants are based on super-critical technology that emits 15 per cent less carbon dioxide and consumes less coal per unit of electricity generated. This is, of course, assuming a certain “reasonable” quality (or calorific value) of the input coal. In fact, the first units of these ultra-mega power plants (4 GW) were commissioned not too long ago in the western part of the country. It turned out that these could not operate profitably and it is unclear if they have started operating. In one case, the developer won the bid to sell electricity to the Gujarat government at Rs 2.26 per unit of electricity (for comparison—in 2009-10, the average realised cost of power was Rs 2.68 per unit), while the actual cost of imported coal they were dependent on went up making the plant’s operation unprofitable. It is unclear why the low-ball bid did not raise any alarm.

imageSince then the international coal prices have ticked up and now down. Recently, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) stuck a deal with one of the developers to compensate for the losses incurred as the coal prices went up. I hope the volatility of international fuel prices are taken into account while evaluating long term power purchase agreements (PPAs). Bigger mess looms in the coal arena as several of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Coal India Limited are battling over the quality of coal. Coal India Limited is threatening to cut coal supply as NTPC refuses to pay for sub-par quality.

In this backdrop comes the government’s policy to blend domestic and imported coal to arrive at a pooled price of the fuel based on its efficiency or gross calorific value. While working out these pricing policies the interests of the coal-producing states such as Jharkhand are hopefully weighed in.

Next is the case of natural gas. Here, policy on pricing and licensing have led to a sudden dwindling of the promised large reservoirs in the Krishna-Godavari delta. Given that emissions from natural gas-based power plants are half as those from coal, getting policies right would greatly benefit the environment. Discussions are progressing on coal and gas pricing and lets hope sound policy decisions are taken that ensure the interest of resources, environment and citizens.

The policies with conventional fuel supplies have not been ironed out and the government has often been forced to take U-turns. The strengthening and modernising of the existing grid and assured fuel supply to the existing power plants have to be given the highest priority before new licences are issued. When policies to issue licences to explore natural gas are being questioned, is this the right time to discuss exploration of shale gas, environmental impact of which is unclear?

After thermal-based generation (coal, gas and small amount of diesel) come large hydro-electric plants which constitute 19 per cent of the installed capacity and 12 per cent of the total electricity produced. Large-scale hydro projects are by now known to be environmentally unsound. However, in the months preceding monsoon the reservoirs are low and hydro-electricity may not be able rise up to meet the demand during the difficult summer months. Nuclear power constitutes 4.7 GW in India (a mere two per cent of total capacity). The Kudankulam plant in Tamil Nadu that is making headlines everyday has two units of 1GW each, with the first one to be commissioned soon. The concerns with nuclear technology are safe disposal of the spent fuel and capital cost; today the costs of renewable energy are perhaps in the same ballpark as nuclear. In addition, loss of livelihood and displacement of people are serious concerns, particularly given the government’s poor past records. Considering all this, nuclear is unlikely to play a major role in India’s energy portfolio anytime soon.


In this bleak scenario, perhaps the budget 2013 holds a small promise for the renewable generation and hence for the power sector. The budget has two salient features: generation-based tariff for wind generation (Rs 800 crore allocated) and the much-needed, low-interest loans to generate electricity from renewable energy from the national clean energy funds. However, it is unclear how much money will be allocated to this. This is positive news for the renewable energy sector, particularly because banks have been reluctant to lend to developers. The negative balance sheets of the state utilities have hampered payment for the power generated from renewable energy sources.

In addition, the recent plunge in solar panel prices due to increased supply of Chinese panels in the market has significantly reduced the cost of electricity generation from the sun. While India enjoys abundant solar energy, new studies have demonstrated that plenty more of wind potential can be harnessed at a higher hub height than thought before. Today the country has a little over 1GW of solar and 18GW of wind capacity, and there is tremendous room to expand these numbers.

Solar technology, that can be sized to light a small 1W LED bulb (a perfect substitute for a kerosene lantern) as well as to mega Watt utility scale, might be the silver bullet for India’s power sector. The infrastructure is easy to put up and it is noise- and emissions-free. The price is right, the technology is there and several business models have emerged along with entire eco-systems to support the successful deployment of solar to light up villages; hundreds of villages have benefited from this. When reliable grid does arrive to these communities, the solar lighting can supplement or provide backup power. However, given that solar and wind plants can only generate electricity around 20 per cent of the day, these resources can only be part of the portfolio. Nevertheless, they can make up a significantly higher percentage of the total share.

Looking at the actual capacity addition, during the five-year plan 2007-12 India added 55GW in generation capacity, more than twice the capacity added in the previous five-year plan. During the current fiscal year 2012-13, India has already installed a record 16GW. This is good news. Of course, these could pale in comparison to China, whose weekly accomplishments are close to India’s annual numbers.

There has been early warning on the irregularities with the bidding process of solar plants. These have to be looked into and fixed quickly. All said, for an unhampered growth, India needs to ensure good governance, overcome delivery challenges and come forth with effective policy measures that do not stifle growth and innovation.

Shuba V Raghavan is an independent energy policy analyst

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  • Hi Shuba, So nice to see a

    Hi Shuba,

    So nice to see a positive article on Solar! Time and situation has changed over the last two years I presume! :)


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent post. Very well

    Excellent post. Very well researched and written. As a Reneewable Energy Expert I welcome some of your views.

    No doubt Solar Energy will be future energy option especially as decentralized power. The big question is with about 15% efficiency is it worthwhile to go in a big way for Solar power in a developing country? No doubt the cost of generation of solar power has come down, thanks to the cheap solar material available from China. There are two ways to reduce the cost of power generation in solar, one is massive production to bring down the cost and more efficient systems. With the latter only countries like US,Germany,Spain have big solar power projects.
    Let us look at the Solar power projects in Rajasthan. No doubt Desert in Rajasthan experiences high temperatures especially in Summer. I visited Jaisalmer area in Summer in connection with Wind Project there. I visited the area where the present Solar Projects were established. The Problem with Rajasthan is LOO.
    Desert countries are of course best suited to photovoltaic generation, but keep in mind that arid regions also have a bigger problem with dust, that means PV panels have to be frequently cleaned to maintain optimum power production, and that of course requires a further expenditure of energy for maintenance.
    Some countries are setting up Vast solar arrays in desert countries and exporting the power to other countries. And the bigger the solar park, the more people and machines will be needed to keep making the rounds and cleaning the panels, especially after a dust storm. This continuing expenditure of energy for maintenance needs to be taken into account. If cleaning is neglected, then before you know it a solar park's output will drop to half or even below as dust continues to accumulate.
    Dust accumulation on the Solar Panels is a big problem especially in arid regions.
    Everybody knows anything immobile is quickly covered, whether hanging laundry, parked cars or solar panels.
    Unless regularly removed, accumulated dust can in one month reduce a solar panel's efficiency by 35 per cent, according to some experts, more if there is a dust storm. Making matters worse is that, in addition to the dust that blows in from the desert, the region's relatively high humidity helps turn fine dust into a sort of crust. "It makes the dust stick,"
    Using precious water in those regions is expensive nor regular cleaning manually large installations.
    Why not Scientists develop non sticky dust glass ? A glass where the dust won't stick to the surface but slides with a periodic jerk. In Rajasthan,India there is ambitious Solar PV Programme for large scale power. Dust storms in Rajasthan during summer are common which are carried to far way places.
    The Loo is a strong, hot and dry summer afternoon wind from the west which blows over the western Indo-Gangetic Plain region of North India and Pakistan. It is especially strong in the months of May and June. Due to its very high temperatures (45 ┬░CÔÇô50 ┬░C or 115┬░F-120┬░F), exposure to it often leads to fatal heat strokes.
    Infact there are places hot enough like Ramagundam,Kothagudem,Rentachintala in Andhra Pradesh.
    Though India occupies 5th position in Wind in the world,we need to adopt innovation methods to harness the Wind Energy.

    Wind farm co-operatives can be started in India on the lines of those in Denmark.. A Wind Fund can be created and the investments in it by Individual Income Tax payers can be exempted under Section
    80 C. This way there will be funds available for large scale wind farms besides large participation of people in the Wind Farms. Offshore wind farms will be future energy option to supplement conventional power. With extensive research on large size wind turbines and installation techniques of offshore wind turbines, the cost of power generation through offshore wind farms is expected to come down to be competitive with conventional power. USA, China, South Korea, Taiwan, France and Japan have ambitious plans to go in for offshore wind farms on a massive scale.

    Yet another option is Biofuel from Agave and Biogas from Opuntia and power generation. Agave is a care ÔÇô free growth plant which can be grown in millions of hectares of waste land and which produces Biofuel. Already Mexico is using it. Another Care free growth plant is Opuntia which generates Biogas. Biogas can be input to generate power through Biogas Generators. Biogas generators of MW size are available from China. Yet another option is Water Hyacinth for biogas. Water Hyacinth along with animal dung can produce biogas on a large scale and then power. In Kolleru lake in Godavari and Krishna Delta in Andhra Pradesh it is available in 308 Sq. Km for nearly 8 months in a year.

    Crassulacean acid metabolism, also known as CAM photosynthesis, is a carbon fixationpathway that evolved in some plants as an adaptation to arid conditions In a plant using full CAM, the stomata in the leaves remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, but open at night to collect carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is stored as the four-carbon acidmalate, and then used during photosynthesis during the day. The pre-collected CO2 is concentrated around the enzyme RuBisCO, increasing photosynthetic efficiency. Agave and Opuntia are the best CAM Plants.

    Researchers find that the agave plant will serve as a biofuel crop to produce ethanol.
    "Agave has a huge advantage, as it can grow in marginal or desert land, not on arable land," and therefore would not displace food crops, says Oliver Inderwildi, at the University of Oxford.The majority of ethanol produced in the world is still derived from food crops such as corn and sugarcane. Speculators have argued for years now that using such crops for fuel can drive up the price of food.

    Agave, however, can grow on hot dry land with a high-yield and low environmental impact. The researchers proposing the plantÔÇÖs use have modeled a facility in Jalisco, Mexico, which converts the high sugar content of the plant into ethanol.

    Yet another option is Energy Saving. Most of the Agricultural pump sets in operation are quite old. Now more efficient electric motors are available. The Governments(Union and State) can chalk out a scheme to replace the old irrigation motors with efficient ones with subsidy. In fact in some states power for agriculture is almost free(negligible tariff). Electricity is a High grade energy and in a country hard pressed for power, all means have to be found to utilize it effectively and efficiently.
    What is needed in a vast country like ours are decentralised solar systems like solar cookers, solar driers, solar disinfection systems to provide safe drinking water,solar LED lighting systems, solar and wind battery chargers besides energy saving.
    Put the RENEWABLES to WORK: To get inexhaustible,pollution-free energy which cannot be misused.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply