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Getting the sunny side up

According to reports, interest in solar energy projects has been hotting up in India, with states such as Jammu and Kashmir announcing ambitious projects to set up 7,500 MW of solar power capacity.

But for a country that access 5,000 trillion kilowatt hours a year of solar energy, we are yet to harness even a fraction of this potential. India’s total solar power capacity is just 2.5 giga-watt — a mere 1 per cent of the power producing capacity through different sources.

Contrast this with Germany’s 35 GW. Italy, China and the US have over 10 GW of solar power generation capacity.

Gujarat leads the states in tapping sunshine, with about 4 per cent of its energy requirements met by this source. Rajasthan, the runner-up, plans to set up the world’s largest 4000 MW solar power project. Madhya Pradesh, however, has been the leader in additions, putting up a third of the nation’s capacity last year.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, launched in 2010, has a target of reaching 10 GW solar installations by 2017. The scheme, however, attracted its share of controversy.

For one, the Centre’s mandate that at least half the equipment must be sourced locally has irked the US, which has dragged India to the WTO. Power producers also feel the rule limits their options.

The primary reason for slow adoption of solar power in India is the higher cost of solar power compared to conventional sources of energy. Sure, sunshine is ‘free’, but capturing it and converting it into usable power costs ₹7-12 per unit of solar electricity, against ₹5 for coal-based power.

The cost of solar panels and the poor 10-15 per cent efficiency in harnessing heat energy feed into these costs. Still, thanks to the innovations, expenses are falling.

The unit cost has dropped 60 per cent in the last two years. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy expects that rooftop solar power may be on par with traditional sources on costs by 2017.

That said, reliability of power generation from solar panels is low as weather plays spoil sport. Experts say power from renewable sources be limited to under 20 per cent of the total grid power. However, instead of producing power from giant centralised units, encouraging roof-top solar power helps increase power output, without putting the grid at risk of collapse.

De-centralised power will also save the 15-20 per cent electricity that India loses in transmission.

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