An eyewash

Rajasthan's so-called 'solar' power project

By Nidhi Jamwal
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Pic: Science Photolibrary) it 's been more than seven years since the authorities decided to set up a solar power project in Mathania, Rajasthan. Nothing has come of it, yet. The bidding process for the project continues. Allocated funds and precious aid lies unused. It was supposed to be a unique demonstration project. It was meant to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of a power generation technology being used for the first time in the world. What the project has demonstrated, instead, has been the languid approach of the authorities.

The planned 140-megawatt (mw) power plant at Mathania, about 30 km from Jodhpur, owned by the Rajasthan State Power Corporation Limited ( rspcl ), is to use the 'Integrated solar combined cycle' ( iscc ) technology. The plant will produce power using naphtha and solar energy. Solar energy will be used to produce just 35 mw of the 140 mw envisaged. Apart from using naphtha and sunlight as 'fuel', there is also provision for an auxiliary system for power generation with a capacity of 35 mw.

Earlier, the Rajasthan Energy Development Authority ( reda) had planned to set up a power plant dependent totally on solar energy. But after conducting technical feasibility studies it decided to set up the iscc power plant instead. The iscc power plant is to adopt technology from the solar energy power plants running in California, usa . But whereas the California plants run purely on solar energy, the Mathania-based plant will use two sources for power production. Sudhansh Pant, chief executive and director, reda, says power plants dependent solely on solar energy are an expensive proposition, therefore reda has decided to go in for the hybrid technology.

Naphtha, which is a fossil fuel, will have to be transported from Kandla, Gujarat. C S Rajan, secretary, department of energy, government of Rajasthan, says the project will depend upon railways to transport naphtha. There is a railway line running close to Mathania where the plant is to be set up. He claims, "Transporting naphtha will not be expensive."

The total cost of the project is estimated at Rs 872 crore. The project has got a us $50 million-grant from the Global Environment Facility ( gef ) and a soft loan from the government of Germany. The Union ministry for non-conventional energy sources and the Rajasthan state government will also have a stake in the project. "This is the first time that gef has granted so much of money for such a project. us $4 million have been provided for replication of the project, which means that if the project becomes successful, then it would be replicated elsewhere," says Pant.

"The cost of generating power through naphtha is estimated at Rs 5 crore per mw, whereas in case of solar thermal it would be as high as Rs 30 crore per mw," says V P Mathur, additional general manager, Rajasthan Electronics and Instruments Limited, based at Jaipur. The daily water requirement of six cusec will be drawn from the Jodhpur canal. reda has acquired the land through which the canal water will run. Whereas at the plant site, water storage capacity will be enough to meet two days needs of the plant, the tank to be built close to Jodhpur canal will store water to fulfill a month's needs," says A K Baletia, senior project officer, reda , Jodhpur. The distance between the Jodhpur canal and the Mathania plant is about 10-12 kms. The existence of a gradient of about 10 metres from the canal to the plant, means the water will not be required to be pumped to the plant.

The solar technology
The 35 mw power to be generated using solar energy, will use the thermal process. In the solar thermal process, the solar energy heats water turning it into steam. This steam is then used to run the turbines and generate electricity. The solar thermal process, as compared to the solar photovoltaic process ( spv ) is a complicated and expensive process. "Globally, not too many good examples of solar thermal power plants exist", says Tara Chand Kandpal, professor at the centre for energy studies, Indian Insitute of Technology, New Delhi. Setting up a solar thermal plant requires huge investments. But there are reasons for going in for solar thermal process, say officials. "The power plant will have a turbine running on processing naphtha. The same turbine can be alternatively run on steam generated by boiling water using solar energy," says Rajan. Officials at reda feel that the spv technology is not viable for huge power plants. spv usually works, they suggest, for power production limited to some kilowatts. "At larger scales of production spv turns out to be extremely expensive.

There are other problems with the spv technology. "The major disincentive in going in for spv is the high cost and low output. The maximum efficiency of solar cells is just 15 per cent. In such a case going in for spv technology for a large power plant does not make sense, says Mathur.

Officials say that after discussing various permutations and combinations, the experts agreed that 105 mw of power will be generated using naphtha and 35 mw using solar energy.

In limbo
Reading the technical details, one gets the image that the project is a well-planned venture waiting to take off. That's not so. In fact, the project has seen many avatars and promises to change character in the future as well. Hear Pant: "In case the experts feel that 35 mw solar component is not working out, there are chances that we will decrease the solar power component." "We have to bring down carbon emissions, so we are eager to have a solar power plant," says Rajan. He ignores the fact that the plant will run on naphtha -- a fossil fuel. The project will lead to more carbon dioxide emissions. The media announces it variously as a "unique solar project", "872 crore solar energy project" and Rajasthan's "solar power plan". The truth is that once it begins working even the little solar power planned for may not be produced. In fact, the authorities are not even considering the project as a test for financial viability of the technology. Could it be because the project was taken up only to mop up funds available from the foreign donors like gef for 'green projects'?

But all the talk of technological viability and production ratios is still just that, talk. The project has been stuck at the bidding stage for far too long. Way back in 1994, reda had, after its first round of bidding, signed the power purchasing agreement ( ppa ) with 'Amoco-Enron Solar Development Project' a joint venture of Amoco and Enron, two fossil fuel giants based in us. Then the project was meant to produce 50 mw of power. The plant was to produce 4.66 mw by December 1999 and run at full capacity by 2002. But, in 1997, Amoco and Enron walked away from the project. Media reports speculated that they were unable to garner funds.

Some media reports also mention that they were able to strike a more lucrative deal in Greece and moved away from the financially unviable Mathania project. Whatever be the reason, the bidding began again. In October 2000 media reports again surfaced of reda announcing that work will begin on the project in July 2001. Pant said work on the project would begin from July-August 2001. reda also claimed, the terms of the ppa had been eased to ensure participation of private parties. But when contacted recently Sudhansh Pant said the bidding process will itself take another six to seven months. Which means the project will again get delayed. When will work actually begin on the project? And what will be the technology used? All such questions remained unanswered.

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