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Solar power: India’s moment in the sun

According to reports, there are times in the life of a nation when it is presented with an opportunity to radically change its fortunes. The Industrial Revolution in Britain, the discovery of oil reserves in the Middle East, the first movable type printing press in Germany, the tapping of geo-thermal energy in Iceland have all been massive game changers for these countries.

For India such an opportunity may be presenting itself in the form of solar power. As this form of energy nears grid parity (solar is now cheaper than diesel for electricity), while the cost of conventional fuel scales up on the back of a weakening rupee, India’s moment of truth may well be nigh. Pursued aggressively, with the kind of single-minded focus the US has brought to its shale gas efforts over the last six years (by the end of 2012, those efforts have led to the production of more than 1.5 million barrels per day (mbd) of crude oil, starting from virtually zero in 2006), India has the real chance of joining early pioneers like Germany, Italy and increasingly China in reaping the rewards of embracing one of the safest and cleanest of energy sources, with a virtually inexhaustible supply. One, furthermore, that faces little of the unpredictability that dogs coal-based power production.
Currently, solar power contributes less than 0.5% of India’s energy mix, a figure the government hopes to raise to 5-7% by 2022. According to the solar energy consultancy Bridge to India, the country had 1,700 megawatts (MW) of photo voltaic capacity installed by May 2013, with 80% of it in Gujarat and Rajasthan which enjoy long periods of sunlight. The consultancy projects that the figure will jump to 12,800 MW by 2016.
While a dysfunctional central government has done precious little to actualize its own ambitious target of 20,000 MW of solar energy by 2022 (which in itself is no more than 10% of India’s potential solar generation capability), there are definite green shoots visible in the states.
West Bengal is experimenting with a floating solar power plant in a pond located at Victoria Memorial which is expected to generate 10 kilowatts of power. If the experiment succeeds, other water bodies in the state could be similarly used. That’s significant because studies have also shown with a cooler rear surface for the solar panel, its power generation capacity goes up by 16%.
Other states have already woken up to solar’s potential for transformative change. Last week, Rajasthan laid the foundations of the world’s largest solar farm with a capacity to generate 3,000 MW. This puts in shade even the 2,000 MW farm that Gujarat had announced last year. While these two have been at the forefront of the solar rush for obvious reasons, other states are catching on, with Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in the process of setting up plants that will generate 300 MW between them.
Even without grid parity, solar energy offers huge advantages over conventional energy sources in terms of lower greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to cleaner air. Which is why solar is booming across the US, leading to falling solar panel and installation costs. Residential solar installations in the US reached 488 MW last year—a 62% increase over 2011 installations. But it isn’t just in the US or Europe that the rush is visible. The 102-member NYSE Bloomberg Global Solar Energy Index (SOLAR) has gained 37% this year on the back of surging Asian demand. Japan is promoting wider use of solar power after closing nuclear facilities following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster while China, which accounts for 60% of global solar photovoltaics manufacturing capacity, has said it expects to install 10 gigawatts of solar panels this year. Bloomberg reported that major US solar manufacturers are churning out panels at full speed, running their factories at maximum and mulling ways to boost output and expand capacity to meet surging demand in Asia.
The world has tried out various energy alternatives, with mixed results. Biofuels, for instance, once touted as the fuel for the future, are beginning to wind down following their impact on food production worldwide. India has unique advantages in solar power, receiving adequate solar radiation for 300 days a year, amounting to 3,000 hours of sunshine equivalent to over 5,000 trillion kilowatt hour, according to Energy Alternatives India. Tapping this treasure is now a question of throwing sufficient resources at it. If that needs a new market mechanism, it is for the government to find one.

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