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Solar power

Clean energy at low cost

by Sandip Chattopadhyay

In depth

Street-side business in Kolkata.

Street-side business in Kolkata.

Electricity is an important element of human development. Electric light enables people to study, work or move in safety at night. India faces a growing demand for clean and sustainable energy in industries and households, not only in the cities. Since the grid does not reach everywhere, and there are many power cuts, ­off-grid solutions are relevant.
A good device consists of separate modules that can easily be connected, so it is easy to get spare parts and make repairs if need be.

For people in rural India, electricity is not a matter-of-course. Many villages are not connected to the grid, and expanding the infrastructure is very expensive. According to official figures, the nationwide average availability of electricity in villages is only six hours per day – and this is where the majority of Indian citizens live. Power cuts are not the exception, but the rule moreover. Accordingly, solar devices are an option for rural people to improve their living conditions fast and at low cost.

Bihar is probably the most backward of India’s large states. It has 100 million people, most of whom live in rural areas, and its infrastructure is utterly inadequate. In the past, diesel generators substituted for grid connections altogether, or they were used during black outs. Things are changing, according to Down to Earth, an environmental magazine. In August, it ran a story about Exhibition Road in the state capital Patna. The “world’s biggest off-grid solar market” was said to be located along one kilo­metre of this street and its many bylines, all of which are full of shops. The reporter estimated their annual sales to be worth more than € 70 million.

Customers are increasingly well informed and demanding, according to the magazine. They insist on warranties, and they shop around for low prices. Low ­income groups, the report acknowledged, must often settle for less-than perfect ­solutions even though they know that performance will be below what the producers’ brochures promise. The reason is that they cannot afford to buy the best products on offer. The author’s point, however, was that Biharis increasingly understand the market. According to him, moreover, every district in state
has its own small version of Exhibition Road.

Nonetheless, the potential of solar power has hardly been tapped in India, a country of abundant sun shine. So far, small scale renewable energy sources, which include solar, wind and biomass, make up about 12.5 % of supply according to the national Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

 

More than 320 sunny days

On average, India gets more than 320 sunny days per year. The solar photovoltaic industry in India is on the way of becoming a mass-producing industry, providing even poor, rural areas with inexpensive electricity. One of the forces driving the growth of the solar energy market is the increasing cost of conventional fuels like coal, kerosene, petrol and diesel.

Even in the cities, off-grid solar power can prove relevant. Consider small street-side businesses in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) for instance. They generate a lot of work for many low-income people who shine shoes, make tea, clean clothes or do small repairs. Many businesses cannot afford the compulsory electricity bill of 300 rupies (the equivalent of € 4.20) per month that anyone with a legal electricity connection must pay.

For low-income groups, solar energy is a good option. LED solar lanterns can be charged via sunlight in daytime. Four hours of recharging gives light for nine hours. The average lifetime of an LED solar lantern is five years. They are produced in India, cost about 1400 rupies, and are available all over the country. They are quite popular.

Solar home light systems (SHS) are a little more costly than solar lanterns at 8000 rupies, but they last 20 years and their light is brighter. Solar panels more­over, can be used to power fans, which is important in the hot seasons. Rural ­municipalities, moreover, are increasingly using solar streetlights at night. Entire groups of villages in the Ganges Delta are relying on such systems. The grid does not reach many islands in the Delta.

For rural people, off-grid solar devices are quite attractive. A good home light system, for instance, can make attractive dowry. Solar lanterns allow farmers to work on the fields after sunset. A good device consists of separate modules that can easily be connected, so it is easy to get spare parts and make repairs if need be.

India has several states with long, cold winters. Solar water heaters are a perfect alternative to conventional water heaters even in December and January, the darkest months. The Delhi state government has made it compulsory for hotels, schools and the residences of members of parliament to install solar water heaters. This system has a life of almost twenty years and can heat the water to a temperature of up to 80 degrees Celsius. Today, there are more than fifty registered companies in India that manufacture solar water heaters.

Competition is getting tougher, however. In the past 20 years, solar devices were manufactured by small and mid-sized companies in India. Increasingly, cheap imports from China are flooding the market. Many customers, however, complain that the quality of these products is poor. It must be admitted, of course, that not all Indian products are top-quality either. The problem is that low-performance devices do not only disappoint customers, they are detrimental to reputation and future development of the entire sector.

In January 2010, the Indian government declared a “National Solar Mission”, with an ambitious programme of installing 20 gigawatts on-grid solar power by 2022. “On-grid” means that the individual solar systems are connected to a utility company which can store the energy if it is not used. Up to now, India has installed 960 megawatt grid-tie solar power in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Orissa, in order to provide electricity directly to homes in rural areas.

The Mission has motivated many Indian and International companies to invest, thus has helped to fulfil the phase one target before time. India is expecting to install another five gigawat of solar power by the end of 2015 in the second phase. Such progress is impressive, but off-grid appliances will remain relevant in the years to come nevertheless.