With a high population density, large tracts of land required for large-scale solar projects will be hard to come by in India in the near future. And this is where small-scale rooftop solar projects can fill in the gap and address the ever-increasing domestic energy requirements. A look at the challenges involved in promoting and implementing these projects in context of the ongoing Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission.
Annie Philip (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.
With an average of 300 sunny days a year and high solar insolation, India has the capability of producing 5,000 trillion kilowatts of clean energy annually. The potential to lead the way in the solar power space, in addressing domestic energy requirements and as a supplier of equipment to other countries is immense.
The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), launched in 2010, set an ambitious target of deploying 20,000 MW of grid-connected (including rooftop installations) and 2,000 MW of off-grid solar power by 2022 in three phases.
The JNNSM Phase II policy document has declared Phase I (up to 2013) a success story, with encouraging response from project developers. A new World Bank report attests this and states that the JNNSM Phase I is “well-poised to make India a global leader in the development of solar power”, and that it has been “instrumental in bringing down the cost of solar power to a level that is competitive across the world”.
However, almost all of the solar power projects of Phase I were “ground-mounted utility scale grid-connected systems”. Large-scale solar projects are space intensive. “A 1,000 MW plant may require nearly10,000 acres of contiguous land”. With a high population density, land required for solar projects will be hard to come by in India. And this is where rooftop projects can fill the gap. Rooftop projects also improve productivity as transmission and distribution losses are reduced, and they require a low gestation time.
JNNSM Phase II (2013- 2017) aims to deploy 1,000 MW of grid-connected and off-grid rooftop solar projects.
To achieve a nationwide impact through solar power, particular attention will need to be given to small-scale solar applications, including rooftop projects. These projects will require continuous support and evaluation from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and the states. The bigger focus on large utility-scale projects is because these projects are easier to monitor and allow for achieving policy targets on time for policy makers. Rooftop solar projects pose quite a few challenges which need to be addressed before solar panels on roofs across India become a common sight.
Solar Space Market
As of October 2013, India’s total installed capacity reached 2,100 MW from a mere 17.8 MW in early 2010. Of this, grid-connected solar capacity amounted to 1,969 MW and off-grid systems accounted for 131 MW.
The Indian solar market is estimated to reach US$2.05 billion in 2015, up from US$1.05 billion in 2012, according to an analysis by Frost and Sullivan.
The JNNSM has been effective in bringing down the cost of solar power in India. A tariff of Rs 17 per kW hour was fixed by the regulator when the solar mission was launched in January 2010. Over the course of two years, the tariff reduced dramatically from Rs 17 per kWh to Rs 10.8 in November 2010 and further to Rs 7.49 per kWh in December 2011.
Rooftop Solar Power
Grid-connected : The Rooftop Photovoltaic (PV) and small Solar Power Generation Programme (RPSSGP) scheme (under JNNSM) aims to encourage states to set up small solar grid-connected projects. This endeavor will help “create a database of performance of solar plants under different climatic and grid conditions”. RPSSGP is a generation based incentive (GBI) scheme and the projects are connected to the grid at voltage levels below 33 kV.
Interestingly though, a Centre for Science and Environment report states that “almost all projects under the RPSSGP are actually ground-based”.
MNRE launched a pilot scheme for promotion of large area grid-connected roof top solar PV projects in cities. It is primarily targeted at cutting the dependence on diesel generators for backup in commercial establishments. A 30% subsidy on the system cost is provided through Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), a government-run implementation agency.
Off-grid: Off-grid solar applications include solar lighting systems (lantern, home and street), solar power plants, charging stations and pumping systems. JNNSM has set a target of 20 million solar lighting systems for rural areas by 2022.
A good example of an off-grid solar project would be the micro grid executed by Mera Gao Power (a USAID-backed enterprise) in Damdampurawa village, Sitapur district, Uttar Pradesh in early 2013. Each household in the village was provided two LED lights and one mobile-charging point at Rs 25 per week (works for seven hours every evening) and a one-time setup cost of Rs 40 was charged. The roof of a sturdy house was chosen to install the two solar panels and battery (two panels can serve up to 50 households). The project brought a vast improvement to the life of the villagers.
States and the Domestic Consumer Space
In the domestic consumer space, a typical house solar installation of 1KW power costs about Rs1.7 lakh with the battery costing approximately Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000. The battery needs to be changed every five years.
Many states now have their own solar policies with Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka investing significant allocation to rooftop projects directed at households.
Challenges and Looking Forward
Policy barriers: A report by World Bank in 2010 pointed out certain policy and regulatory barriers as key impediments to solar power development in India. Based on interviews with developers in the solar power space, it cited a lack of clarity in guidelines as a hindrance. For the domestic consumer, a tedious approval process to obtain subsidy, and the presence of multiple partners (MNRE, state implementation agency, project developer) makes installation a cumbersome task.
There have also been administrative issues because of the “proliferation of different solar programmes”. Currently there are, at least, “three programmes with similar mandates and overlapping areas of operation” among off-grid projects in rural areas . These include programmes by the MNRE and Ministry of Power, which differ in their view of the type of decentralised energy sources to be used and the permanency of the off-grid system. The result is that “no single entity is fully aware of villages being electrified through various decentralized energy programmes across the country”.
For the domestic consumer, rural and urban, a single point of contact from financing to installing to operating to maintaining is required for the smooth implementation of the solar project.
Operational issues: The power grid in India has been known to have severe stability problems with major grid collapses. Solar power, being more erratic than conventional power, poses an important challenge to grid stability. With multiple small solar projects connected to the grid, there is a possibility that the electricity network can become imbalanced. As the number of these projects increase, it will be vital to monitor grid stability for its sustainability.
Effective storage becomes an important issue during India’s monsoon season. In the current scenario, solar power for households can only be stored in expensive batteries made from environmentally toxic materials. After-sales service was also identified as a challenge area for small-scale project developers.
Costs, financing and conventional energy sources: Even with subsidies, the installation cost of a domestic solar system at present remains high for most consumers in India. However, solar PV power is now cheaper than diesel generated power. “The MNRE anticipates solar power achieving grid parity by 2017-18 and parity with coal-based thermal power by 2025, but this recognises that cost trajectory will depend upon on the scale of global deployment and technology development and transfer”. Ultimately, the growth of solar power in India is closely tied to the cost of conventional energy power. As solar power costs turn more competitive, demand from consumers will naturally push supply in the domestic segment.
The second phase of the JNNSM is facing a major shortage of funds , and rooftop solar projects are bound be affected as they rely largely on MNRE funds. But, in a positive development, “the RBI allowed loans given to individuals to set up off-grid solar and other renewable energy solutions for households as priority sector loans”. However, the banking community will require training to become familiar with dynamics involved in financing of the solar sector, especially the off-grid segment for rural areas.
One model does not fit all and role of State: The feed-in-tariff model presents some challenges in implementation. A key issue is monitoring of projects. It is possible that power generated from sources other than solar, including utility supply and power generated from subsidised fuels, is fed into the grid, and a model like feed-in-tariff could end up being misused. In fact, the Delhi government scrapped its solar rooftop scheme fearing such abuse and exploitation. It also poses a high burden on the discom because purchasing power from individual households might be uncompetitive, as the per unit cost of electricity may be higher due to the small size of the project. The dynamic nature of the solar energy market also makes it difficult to fix the tariff.
So should households install grid-connected or off-grid rooftop solar projects? What should be the model of operation? States/ local bodies will need to decide on the suitable model to adopt based on local conditions. States will have to step up mandatory regulation and provide an encouraging environment for the domestic consumer and for organisations setting up off-grid applications in rural areas. Punjab has made it mandatory for houses constructed over an area of above 5,400 sq feet to install solar power projects.
Engaging the customer: Getting the domestic consumer interested in solar power is perhaps the most important step to popularise rooftop solar installations. An expansion of the service network, large scale visibility/ publicity and provision of information to customers, as mentioned in the JNNSM Phase II policy document, is required. The MNRE has to rope in state and local civic authorities and residential associations.
At present, the market has different types of solar devices of varying quality, including poor quality imported products. JNNSM Phase II has plans both for developing “star rating systems” and standards for components used in solar systems. Also, all roof types may not be suitable for installation and may require refurbishment.
Another concern for the domestic consumer would be ownership (in case of shared roof) and renting the roof for rooftop solar projects. The owner may consider the roof as a source of income in the future. When the incentive (based on generation) is fixed (Gujarat’s rooftop scheme), the owner may be hesitant to enter into a long-term agreement “where there is a risk of disproportionate green incentive versus the rise in rent income.”
Despite the difficulties involved in harnessing solar power on a smaller scale, rooftop solar projects present a real opportunity for energy security for India’s vast populace, especially the large majority (400 million people) who lack access to modern forms of energy.