India’s bid to increase solar power production is energizing the business of a number of small and medium-sized US firms that offer innovative equipment and technologies.
Renewable energy firms such as Astonfield, Spire Corp. and Suniva have bagged projects worth millions of dollars in recent years from India.
“The technology that exists today in India is three generations behind what we have in the US today,” said Saurabh Sen, who grew up in Chandannagar, a small town near Kolkata, and quit banking to launch New York-based Astonfield in 2005.
“What we are bringing is up-to-date technology. Whatever is being used in Colorado or Arizona or New Mexico, we are using the same technology in Gujarat, Rajasthan,” he said.
Astonfield gets all its business from India. It recently won contracts to build three plants—an 11MW plant in Gujarat, a 5MW plant in West Bengal and a 5MW plant in Rajasthan—worth $140 million in total. These plants are part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), under which India hopes to increase the production of solar energy to 1,000MW in 2013 and 20,000MW by 2022, up from around 5MW now.
Greg O’Connor, commercial officer at the US embassy in New Delhi, said there is a 50:50 mix of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large companies from the US that are venturing into India’s solar energy sector.
“These companies range from large module manufacturers and niche cell manufacturers to large, established independent power producers,” he said via email.
Roger Little, founder of Massachusetts-based Spire, which produces equipment to manufacture photovoltaic modules and cells, is among their beneficiaries. At a trade show in India last year, a US commerce department liaison officer introduced Little to India’s Evergreen Solar Systems. Spire and Evergreen signed a $4 million equipment deal.
Spire, which has been exporting to all parts of the world for 25 years, has increased its business with India by 60% over the past three years. “Because of the country’s policies for increasing solar power, India could be our biggest market,” said Little.
Some firms, however, say offset requirements for contracts—which mandate that solar modules and solar cells be produced locally—could upset their India plans. “Local content requirements, if applied to JNNSM, will have some impact on the amount of trade we could do with India. It will still be an important market, but not as big as it could be,” said Bryan Ashley, chief marketing officer of Georgia-based Suniva, which produces silicon solar cells and high-powered solar modules.
Because of the offset requirements, the opportunity is more for firms like Spire, which provide equipment to make solar modules instead of selling the modules themselves, said Little. “The infrastructure in India will grow because of the national initiative and will be a real boon for us.”
Ron Summers, president of the Washington-based lobby group Indo-US Business Council, said India has not imposed import limits on other energy programmes, such as coal-fired projects and the civil nuclear programme. “Why then should India choose the solar sector to limit technologies?”
As Panchabuta has reported last month, the U.S. was aggressively trying to push India to lift solar import restrictions on Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission.
The mandatory use of domestic content for utility scale grid connected solar power is a topic that has witnessed a lot of debate and there have been strong views on both for and against the same sometimes from two group companies each on one side of the same corporate house.
The local domestic content requirements mandates that solar panels will have to be produced in India for the first year and solar cells will also have to produced from the second year.There is also talk that this will be extended to solar inverters as well.
Panchabuta had reported recently, that the government may postpone mandatory use of locally made photovoltaic cells in solar power projects being set up under the national solar mission to speed up projects and allow access to the best-available technology although the move would be a blow to local suppliers such as Moser Baer, Tata BP Solar, KSK Surya and IndoSolar may suffer.
This immediately led the ministry to issue a clarification, as reported by Panchabuta, that stated, “Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, the Government had announced a policy to introduce domestic content wherein 30% domestic content is mandatory for the solar thermal power projects in the first phase of the Mission. Solar Photovoltaic (PV) grid power projects are to be selected in two stages. In the first stage 150 MW capacity projects are being selected, where the crystalline silicon modules should be manufactured in the country. However, for the second stage of selection of about 300 MW capacity projects, it is mandatory to use domestic solar cells and modules. There is no move to defer this policy. “
This is getting very interesting and as Panchabuta has reported, there are various arguments that have been brought up both for and against the domestic content requirements with almost all developers against the domestic content requirements and all Indian manufacturers for the requirement.