The need for renewable sources of energy can hardly be overemphasised when we are faced with frequent weather adversaries due to high levels of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions, which is partly due to the burning of fossil fuels. India’s power sector is one of the contributors of GHG emissions as a major part of power supply in India comes from coal. With 250-300 clear days of sun, India can generate 5000 trillion KWh of solar energy per year, which can be a possible alternative for energy generation (Ummadisingu and Soni, 2011).
The National Solar Mission
Begun in 2009, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) was an initiative of the earlier United Progressive Alliance government, now known as National Solar Mission, with a target of 20 GW by 2022. This target has been revised to an installed capacity of solar power of 100 GW by the present National Democratic Alliance government in the union budget of India (Press Information Bureau, 2015). Incidentally China, which is a leader in solar power, had a total installed solar capacity of about 43.5 GW at the end of 2015 whereas India’s total installed capacity of solar power was 13.9 GW by the August of 2017 (MNRE, 2017).
The Mission anticipates achieving grid tariff parity by 2022 and parity with coal based thermal power by 2030. It aims at reducing the cost of solar power generation in the country through ■long term policy, ■large scale deployment goals, ■aggressive research and development, and ■domestic production of critical raw materials, components and products. As a result, it is expected that grid tariff parity would be achieved by the stipulated year.
The Mission was planned to be implemented through three phases: Phase 1: 2010 to 2013; Phase 2: 2013 to 2017; and
Phase 3: 2017 to 2022.
Challenges for the National Solar Mission
According to A K Tripathi, Director General of National Institute of Solar Energy, the Mission planning is currently undertaken on a yearly basis—aiming at the 2022 target. As of now, the immediate task is achieving the 2019 target. As far as the environmental impact assessments of solar projects are concerned, the government has not undertaken any studies, but it is mulling over project disposals after 25 years or so. Tripathi pointed out that although there is a concern for decentralised distribution of power, the primary aim is to harvest solar power and generate it in abundance and make it available through the grid. Earlier, solar power was expensive, but it is getting increasingly affordable; now there are residential subsidies up to 30 per cent and the payback period is about five years, he added. Experts globally however, have differing views on payback period as no size fits all, which ranges from six to ten years.
K S Popli, chairman and managing director, of Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Ltd. (IREDA) said that it is possible to achieve the 100 GW target by 2022 especially with the lowering of tariffs and increasing public-private partnerships. Out of the current year’s target of 20,000 MW for the solar parks, land for 14,000 MW has already been acquired. Since the government is providing quick clearances for beginning the construction of the parks, besides readying the required infrastructure, extending transmission lines and establishing green corridors simultaneously—the targets seem increasingly achievable, he opined.
The Phase 1 of the National Solar Mission achievements surpassed the targets according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). However, a review of this phase by Shrimali and Nekkalapudi (2014) revealed that its success has been mapped only through deployment of solar PV technology. Solar thermal installation was way behind schedule. They also stated that larger projects, even though eventually completed, were delayed beyond deadlines with increasing requirements for capital, land and labour.
The second phase of the Mission gets over in 2017. The revision of targets affixed the cumulative target for the end of 2016-17 at 17,000 MW. So we may assess the performance of the solar sector thus far against the set targets. At the end of March 2017, the utility scale installed capacity from solar stood at about 12,289 MW (Central Electricity Authority, 2017). While this is more than the earlier target, it is below the expected level with respect to the new targets.
The off-grid segment, which is important for the enhancement in access to electricity and lessening of stress on the transmission grid, had reached only 360 MW till mid-November 2016 (Bridge to India, 2016).
Upon review, it is seen that by the end of the financial year 2016-17, a total of 203 concentrating solar thermal (CST) technology systems over an area of 51,330 sq mt have been installed in the country while 63 CST projects with 27,970 sq m collector/ reflector area were reported as under installation (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, 2017). These were designed to be used for heating, air conditioning and steam cooking requirements in industrial, institutional and commercial establishment. Given the target of 15 million sq mt, this is definitely a sector that would need special focus in the third phase of the Mission.
The Mission faces technical, socio-economic and institutional barriers that hamper its smooth progress. The major ones include risks with immature technology with respect to radiation data, efficiency and storage and inadequate power evacuation systems. High initial capital costs for land, water and technology and issues in accessing funds and subsidies along with long payback periods, weak market infrastructure and sales-service-industry networks, especially for small scale decentralised projects have also created roadblocks. Administrative delays, continuing subsidies to conventional energy and low importance accorded to research, development and training are other issues (Kapoor, et al, 2014; Shrimali and Rohra, 2012).
The larger solar power plants based in arid areas like Rajasthan and Gujarat have to deal with dust. Deposition of dust on solar panels decreases solar power conversion capacities so regular cleaning and maintenance becomes essential (Sharma, et al., 2012). Other issues such as varying quality of devices, absence of repair services and non-availability of spare parts are a matter of constant stress for the users. Since the lowering of tariffs is more due to reducing global costs of solar cells and modules and increasing production by China and USA (Ghosh and Prasad, 2017), India is increasingly dependent on cheap dumping, resulting in suffocation of the growth of domestic manufacturers. Also, the risk of increasing international debts (in case of larger projects) is an issue the nation needs to contend with. In 2015-16, India had imported solar cells worth 234 billion USD, 83.61 per cent of which sourced were from China. Using predatory pricing, China is able to dump cheap thin film solar cells in the Indian market in the absence of effective anti-dumping duties (Ghosh and Prasad, 2017).
The initiatives and achievements of the country in solar power are commendable, but they are the beginning of a mammoth task, which needs long-term support and vision from multitude sectors. Some recommendations include—encouraging investments through green solar bonds (green bonds are bonds where the money raised by the issuer is set aside for financing environment-friendly projects), systematically investing in research that is in line with local and national priorities, creation of a large base of skilled human resources and entrepreneurs, establishing a massive market infrastructure (quality retail and service outlets at affordable rates) for consumers and starting mass awareness programmes that reach remote areas aiming to involve the public. Attracting consumers by providing them compensation for every unit of electricity contributed to the grid through the installation of a net meter in homes and offices, making solar devices affordable to the poor, promoting indigenous manufacturers, building up smart grids (electricity networks that can intelligently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it in order to detect and react to local changes in energy needs) and preventing power theft provide consumers additional advantages (Kapoor et.al 2014, Shrimali and Rohra 2012). More importantly, all the activities have to be supported with strong policy regulations and long term commitments.
The highly ambitious National Solar Mission has only five more years to complete its target of 100 GW power generation capacity. Not only is its completion awaited, but more crucial would be to see whether the Mission would be able to cover the mass populace—100 per cent rural, remote and poor households and not just 100 per cent villages, currently left out of the conventional power grid. Increasing the share of solar power in an attempt to move towards a sustainable and cleaner energy mix on one hand, while on the other subsidising polluting forms of conventional energy seems contradictory to say the least. Moreover, the government also presents no mechanism to stop the dumping of cheap solar devices—being exempted from excise duties, from other nations. These raise doubts about the commitment and the efficacy of the vision. If despite the drawbacks and barriers, the Mission is able to gain the acceptance among the masses, therein would lie its real success.