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Solar power: Govt to target arid regions to produce electricity

According to reports, the recent announcement to set up the world’s largest solar park near Sambhar lake in Rajasthan is just a part of much bigger plan, cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office, to target the arid regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat to produce 300,000 MW electricity — about the amount India consumed in 2012 —over the next decade.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has after a detailed assessment of India’s solar power capacity told the PMO that what India consumed in 2012 can be produced across the “wasteland” of India’s hot and cold deserts covering an area of 3,600 square km. In particular, the Thar desert and the Kutch have been identified.

This, according to the ministry’s assessment, would constitute only five per cent of India’s wastelands, but produce electricity that the whole of India generates now.

More importantly, land availability and acquisition issues, which are the biggest stumbling blocks to setting up big infrastructure projects now, will be minimal. In the case of Sambhar Lake project, Hindustan Salt Works has shed some 23,000 acres of land in a joint venture with BHEL and Solar Energy Corporation of India.

Buoyed by the prospects of this, the PMO is learnt to to have held a slew of meetings to scale up solar power and turn it into a mainstream energy source. While Sambhar is the first ultra-mega solar power project, sources said more are in the pipeline.

According to the plan, the idea is to identify blocks of sizes 25-30 square km of wasteland sufficient to set up 1,000 MW projects. The assessment is that development of such a renewable energy park could take two to three years.

For instance, in the Sambhar project, the estimated cost of power is in the range of Rs 7 per unit. However, viability gap funding of Rs 1,000 crore for this Rs 7,000 crore project could bring down the cost of solar power to about Rs 5 per unit, which is still on the higher side because in India the average cost is Rs 3.50 per unit.While this project has taken off, a larger exercise is underway to somehow neutralise the cost escalation by a simultaneous push to manufacturing solar panels and related equipment in India itself.

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