In 2017, small experiments had a big impact on India’s clean energy sector

Not merely tilting at windmills.
Not merely tilting at windmills.
Image: Reuters/Uday Deolekar
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After a record addition of solar plants and wind farms across India last year, 2017 has been something of a damp squib for the country’s clean energy sector.

Multiple policy and regulatory issues have crippled capacity addition even as the Narendra Modi government has set a target of 175 gigawatts (GW, or 1,000 megawatts) of renewable power by 2022. India’s current capacity stands at around 60 GW, making up for 17.7% of its overall power generation capacity.

The wind energy sector has had to deal with a new method of determining tariffs, which has hit expansion. After 5,400 megawatts (MW) of capacity addition in financial year 2017, the Indian Wind Turbine Manufacturers Association now estimates that the current year will see only about 1,800 MW of new wind farms. 

Meanwhile, this year saw solar power prices fall to record lows, even cheaper than thermal power. However, the year also saw rising solar panel prices, the possibility of the government bringing in anti-dumping duties on imported panels, and fewer project auctions. Flat power demand only added to the woes. In all, solar power capacity addition has fallen from around 4.3 GW in 2016 to a little over 3 GW so far this year.

Yet, while large-scale wind and solar power businesses have tottered, a host of smaller, experimental projects have thrived in 2017.

Small successes

Large-scale rooftop solar: Although small rooftop solar projects have been around since 2012, this is now the fastest-growing segment in India’s clean energy space. The country has added more rooftop solar capacity in the last financial year than in the previous four years combined, taking the total installed capacity to 1.3 GW, according to a report (pdf) by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The growth has been driven by commercial and industrial buildings for which solar power is now cheaper than power from the state electricity grid. On Dec. 18. the central government proposed a slew of incentives to promote rooftop solar. It plans to give $3.7 billion in financial assistance to the various state electricity distribution companies to adopt rooftop solar.

Solar with storage: In October this year, India’s first solar power project with energy storage facilities was commissioned in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Government-owned mining and coal-based energy producer, NLC India, is building the country’s first utility-scale solar plant on the islands located deep in the Bay of Bengal. The islands now depend on diesel-based power-generating units that are, over time, expected to be replaced by such solar power-cum-storage systems. This plugs a major gap in the renewable energy ecosystem in India. Due to its intermittent nature, solar power is now only used during the day. With storage technology, it can be banked and used even at times when sunshine isn’t available. While energy storage technology is still nascent and expensive, the segment is beginning to gradually open up in India.

Solar-powered trains: In July 2017, India’s first train with rooftop solar panels rolled out for suburban transit in New Delhi. The panels on the roofs of six coaches power the fans and lights inside the carriages. A single train with six solar-powered carriages could help the Indian railways save around 21,000 litres of diesel every year.

Floating solar: On Dec. 05, India’s largest floating solar power plant, where panels are put up on a barge on lakes or rivers, was commissioned. The 500 kilowatt (or 0.5 MW) plant has been set up across the Banasura Sagar reservoir in Kerala. While there are other such projects in India, they are only getting larger. The state-run Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), for instance, is reportedly working on commissioning two 10 MW floating solar plants in the south Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Solar-powered agriculture: After years of tepidity, the use of solar-powered water pumps for agriculture in place of diesel-powered ones gained momentum in 2017. Around 8 million diesel-powered irrigation pumps could be replaced by solar pumps, BNEF said in a November 2017 report. Around 128,000 pumps were installed in the financial year 2017, up from 43,000 the previous year, the report added. The segment is heavily driven by central and state government support, with Tamil Nadu even announcing subsidies of 90% on capital expenditure. In 2014, the central government had announced a target to install 1 million solar pumps by 2021.

Heading into 2018

In the coming months, analysts expect the solar power sector to remain flat while wind power installations see an uptick.

“State bids have almost stagnated or are drying up (in the solar sector). So, to meet the ambitious targets of revised 200 GW, (the) government will have to come out with a policy so that the developers feel confident…” Amit Kumar, a partner at consulting firm PwC who focuses on the renewables sector, told Quartz.

The wind energy sector, however, has something to look forward to in the new year.

On Dec. 12, the central government issued guidelines allowing states to conduct auctions for wind power projects. Ambiguity on the norms was among the major problems the sector faced earlier. “That is good clarity, and I am confident that developers will be looking at the sector in terms of installation plans,” Kumar of PwC said. “With these changes, I feel that (for the target of) 60 GW of wind (by 2022), we might be on the right track.”

Just days after the announcement, wind power tariffs crashed in a round of auctions conducted by Gujarat, making wind the cheapest source of clean energy in India now.