Increasing India’s solar generation capacity must be coupled with electricity access for all
India’s National Solar Mission (NSM) is becoming a grand success. We have already crossed the 8,000 MW-milestone in the journey to reach 100 GW by 2022. India has also formed International Solar Alliance and is leading the initiative. Many laudable and novel attempts are being spearheaded: canal-top solar plants are first of their kind technology, innovated in India for the world to follow.
Yet, in our unwavering enthusiasm and speed, we seem to be missing the trajectory. Solar is the perfect vehicle for nation’s growth by coupling it with the social objective of “electricity for all” and water conservation.
As per NSM, the solar projects fall into three categories:
All the three category projects are invariably connected to the grid. This means, they will generate power and send it to grid, and only grid connected consumers can benefit. India still has a very large population (30 crore people) off the grid. Another 30 crore who are connected, remain in the dark for 10-15 hours a day due to unscheduled power cuts and load shedding. Contrary to this, Germany maintains grid down time of only 17 minutes per year!
In the urge to achieve the mammoth target of 100 GW, the fundamental purpose of electrification is slipping. Electricity must empower and enable the energy needs of every citizen. Its reach should be prioritised more for the deprived, under-privileged before other citizens and lastly for industries. “Electricity in every household” is a more fundamental need than achieving the 100 GW solar target. To understand this, let us imagine two scenarios:
Power for the off-grid population
Achieving 100 GW solar power by 2022, will cause three major problems, apart from not meeting “Electricity for all” objective.
Here is an analogy between solar and grid power and insurance schemes for healthy and unhealthy people. The insurance schemes rely on the fact that most people are healthy, and the expenses for minority of those who fall ill, are covered by premium paid by all. In case of energy, solar energy is green (good, clean and positive) and the grid mostly has dirty energy (unhealthy, dirty and negative). When solar power is blended with grid power, the grid health will remain only as long as the quantum of solar power is small. That is, until the proportion of solar power is small (about 10%) in the total grid power. This is because solar power generation fluctuates, depending on the sun. The yield peaks when the sun reaches the zenith in mid-day and drops on either side of the day. Thus, large sized solar projects linked to the grid will destabilise the grid and can cause it to collapse frequently, especially with single location-huge projects.
When most of the solar projects are grid connected, power can be supplied only to the grid connected consumers. Taking the grid to every citizen of this vast country with huge population is neither economical nor feasible.
Through past experiences, we can almost certainly anticipate that huge projects like solar parks and zones are vulnerable to scams, which can derail or delay the very idea of solar energy.
Electricity for all
“Electricity for all” can be achieved with just about 50GW solar by 2025. That is, every village and household in India without electricity or facing huge power cuts, will be provided electricity with off-grid solar plants with batteries. Hence, none of our children any longer will suffer due to polluting kerosene chimney lights or dim candle lights. Instead, they will enjoy and grow with bright LED lights powered by solar energy stored in batteries.
Solar power must be seen as a huge opportunity to play a societal role: by taking major chunk of the solar power off-grid, participation of people will be wider in terms of employment and benefits. Solar power can become a great technology-leveler for the under-privileged, who are either off-grid or suffer with huge power-cuts.
Floating solar power plants—also known as flotovoltaics—is the savior for our country. Out of the 4,862 large dams, if we choose 59 dams of “national importance”, and account their sizes as 1,250 acres (though actual sizes can be more) and further use only 25 per cent of water area of each dam - we can construct 200 GW floating Solar Power plants or flotovoltaics.
Flotovoltaics has three important advantages.
This is a huge opportunity for India to develop indigenous floating power technology and export it. At such large scale, it is definitely possible to break-even or lower the per MW cost of floating plants as compared to ground-based plants. If the cost of floats is made equal to the cost of solar modules mounting structure they will be already on par or less.
India may have lost solar modules manufacturing, we are good at reducing the cost of balance of system (BOS) of solar power plants. The BOS was around Rs 5 crore per MW in 2010 which is brought down to about Rs 2 crore per MW in 2016. Similar magic can happen in Flotovoltaics as well.
Also, the floating plants can be coupled with the hydroelectric power plants wherever possible, and hence the electricity storage issue also can be addressed by pumping the water back on the top to reservoir in the day time with solar power. The existing transmission lines of the hydroelectric power plants can also be reused.
Special tariff or competitive bidding for floating solar plants can accelerate the development of flotovoltaics technology.
Therefore, our thrust must shift away from rooftop and grid connected solar power. Instead, we should couple the social objective of “electricity for all” using off-grid solar systems to light each and every household of India. And, simultaneously India must develop and deploy multi-GW flotovoltaics to reap their technological and socio-economic benefits. Let us use solar energy as a vehicle for nation’s growth.
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