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Sunday 24 September 2017
News updated at 9:19 PM IST

India bets big on solar energy

Vikas Bajaj,NYT 15:56 IST

Over the last decade, the country has opened the state-dominated power industry to private players

Solar power is a clean energy source. But in this arid part of northwest India it can also be a dusty one. Every five days or so, in a marriage of low and high tech, field hands with long-handled dust mops wipe down each of the 36,000 solar panels at a 63-acre installation operated by Azure Power. The site is one of the biggest examples of India’s ambitious plan to use solar energy to help modernise its notoriously underpowered national electricity grid, and reduce its dependence on coal-fired power plants.

Azure Power has a contract to provide solar-generated electricity to a state-government electric utility. Inderpreet Wadhwa, Azure’s chief executive, predicted that within a few years solar power would be competitive in price with India’s conventionally generated electricity.

“The efficiency of solar technology will continue to increase, and with the increasing demand in solar energy, cost will continue to decrease,” Wadhwa said. Two years ago, Indian policy makers said that by the year 2020 they would drastically increase the nation’s use of solar power from virtually nothing to 20,000 megawatts — enough electricity to power the equivalent of up to 3.3 million modern American homes during daylight hours when the panels are at their most productive. Many analysts said it could not be done. But, now the doubters are taking back their words.

Dozens of developers like Azure, because of aggressive government subsidies and a large drop in the global price of solar panels, are covering India’s northwestern plains — including this village of 2,000 people — with gleaming solar panels. So far, India uses only about 140 megawatts, including 10 megawatts used by the Azure installation, which can provide enough power to serve a town of 50,000 people, according to the company. But analysts say that the national 20,000 megawatt goal is achievable and that India could reach those numbers even a few years before 2020.

“Prices came down and suddenly things were possible that didn’t seem possible,” said Tobias Engelmeier, managing director of Bridge to India, a research and consulting firm based in New Delhi. Chinese manufacturers like Suntech Power and Yingli Green Energy helped drive the drop in solar panel costs. The firms increased production of the panels and cut costs this year by about 30 per cent to 40 per cent, to less than $1 a watt. Developers of solar farms in India, however, have shown a preference for the more advanced, so-called thin-film solar cells offered by suppliers in the United States, Taiwan and Europe. The leading American provider to India is First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz. India does not have a large solar manufacturing industry, but is trying to develop one and China is showing a new interest in India’s growing demand. China’s Suntech Power sold the panels used at the Azure installation, which opened in June.

Industry executives credit government policies with India’s solar boom, unusual praise because businesses usually deride Indian regulations as Kafkaesque. Over the last decade, India has opened the state-dominated power-generating industry to private players, while leaving distribution and rate-setting largely in government hands. European countries heavily subsidise solar power by agreeing to buy it for decades at a time, but the subsidies in India are lower and solar operators are forced into to greater competition, helping push down costs. This month, the government held its second auction to determine the price at which its state-owned power trading company — NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam — would buy solar-generated electricity for the national grid. The average winning bid was 8.77 rupees (16.5 cents) per kilowatt hour. That is about twice the price of coal-generated power, but it was about 27 per cent lower than the winning bids at the auction held a year ago. Germany, the world’s biggest solar-power user, pays about 17.94 euro cents (23 American cents) per kilowatt hour.

India still significantly lags behind European countries in the use of solar. Germany, for example, had 17,000 megawatts of solar power capacity at the end of 2010. But India, which gets more than 300 days of sunlight a year, is a more suitable place to generate solar power.

And being behind is now benefiting India, as panel prices plummet, enabling it to spend far less to set up solar farms than countries that pioneered the technology. In its solar power auctions, moreover, NTPC is not creating open-ended contracts. The last auction, for example, was for a total of only 350 megawatts, which will cap the government’s costs. The assumption is that the price of solar power will continue to decline, eventually approaching the cost of electricity generated through conventional methods. Most Indian power plants are fueled by coal and generate electricity at about 4 rupees (7.5 cents) per kilowatt hour — less than half of solar’s cost now. In this month’s auction, the recent winning bids were comparable to what India’s industrial and commercial users pay for electricity — from 8 to 10 rupees. And solar’s costs are competitive with power plants and back-up generators that burn petroleum-based fuels, whose electricity costs about 10 rupees per kilowatt hour.

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