On 19 February 2019, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the second phase of grid-connected rooftop solar program with central financial support of Rs 11,814 crore to achieve a cumulative capacity of 40 GW by 2022.
But this was just reiterating plans that had been announced earlier. It was reiterating targets which today look unachievable. It may be recalled that the government finally woke up to the need for promoting rooftop solar first in February 2016 and second in 2018 when it began promoting floating solar as well.
Even so, targets may not be met. Only 1.538 GW of rooftop solar was installed during the year ended September 30, 2018. By the end of 2018, installed rooftop solar capacity stood at just 3.4 GW.
That is symptomatic of the underwhelming performance in overall solar installations so far. The total target for solar power stands at 100 GW by 2022. Of this 40 GW was to be obtained from rooftop solar, and the remaining 60 GW through large scale solar farms. Yet, cumulative solar installed capacity totaled just 26 GW at the end of September 2018 with large-scale solar projects accounting for 89 percent and rooftop solar making up the remaining 11 percent, according to Mercom India Research..
Even the 100 GW target is woefully short of India’s potential for solar power which is estimated at 748.98 GW.
Had the government accelerated its solar programme, it could have saved on fossil fuels, and the inevitable consequence of damage to the environment and public health. According to the Economic Survey of India 2016-17, “the annual number of deaths linked to coal-based power plants pollution is estimated to be around 115,000 and the total monetary cost is around US$ 4.6 billion.”
Moreover, as pointed out in these columns earlier, rooftop solar power can be a big employment generator, creating at least 80 million jobs. Sadly, it is only now that the central government has begun to look at this sector.
In Tripura for instance, chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb had to go to the power ministry in Delhi to permit the state to set up rooftop solar for 50,000 of the most remote households. Providing grid-based connections would have rendered the power supply unreliable. It would also have cost the state Rs 2-3 lakh per household connection, as against just Rs.50,000 each for solar power. The latter would be more reliable as well.
Other states have been active in setting up rooftop solar too, but the projects are small. A sampling of the projects offered by various parties during December 2018 and January and February 2019 can be found here.
What is equally depressing about such small projects is that there is no talk of smart micro-grids. That is because policymakers have yet to realise that the real bang for the buck comes when these off-grid connections are linked to micro but smart grids that work in small clusters.
That is why, even the recent announcements by the CCEA are only grid connected solar power units. Ideally, the first priority should be off grid solar installations, which should then be followed up with smart micro-grids.
Winston Churchill is reported to have once said this about Americans: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”
That could easily apply to Indian policymakers in the power sector as well.The author is consulting editor with Moneycontrol