India serious about intensifying solar projects

India is exploring innovative ways to harness solar power with value addition as it moves forward with resolve to increase use of renewable energy. In Vadodara, Gujarat, solar panels are being installed above canals.

The two major advantages of such a project, experts say, is the efficient and cheap use of land and the reduction of evaporation of water from the channels beneath. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated one such project last weekend. “I saw more than glittering panels – I saw the future of India and the future of our world,” Ban said at the event. “I saw India’s bright creativity, ingenuity and cutting-edge technology.”

India is serious about expanding energy production from renewable sources. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has revised the country’s solar budget to $100 billion and said the country would scale up solar power to more than 10 percent of its total energy mix by 2022.

As part of that effort, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy plans to create 100 megawatts of capacity from grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants. These are to be built over canals on their banks by the end of the government’s latest Five Year Plan in 2017, Reuters says in its report. The ministry will subsidise 30 percent of estimated expenditure of $154 million to construct facilities to meet the goal.

A 10 MW plant on the outskirts of Vadodara city, which began generating power in November, is built across 3.6 km of irrigation canal, and has 33,800 solar panels mounted on steel scaffolding. Completed in under six months, the plant cost $18.3 million – including 25 years of operation and maintenance. The sum is recoverable in 13 years, according to Umesh Chandra Jain, chief engineer with Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), the Gujarat government agency that administers this facility and another smaller one.

There are certain disadvantages that need to be overcome, though. The canal-top solar projects have higher construction cost as they utilize more steel in construction, said Anand Upadhyay, associate fellow with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi.

SSNNL says the vadodra plant cost $2.8 million for infrastructure required to produce one megawatt. A plant of the same capacity on land would cost only $2.3 million per megawatt.

There could be issues with the placement of solar panels also. Only those stretches of canal where panels can be installed in the north south direction ensure optimal production, Upadhyay says. The constraint limits the quantum of land that can be utilized.

The panels are also more susceptible to environmental stresses such as ingress of water, which could reduce performance. Other environmental risks are yet to be understood and there is fear of theft of solar panels.

Solar power will be one of the areas which India will discuss with US President Barack Obama when he visits the country in the last week of January. India is expected to seek US investment in climate-smart technologies in India at the meeting.