In India, solar surge aims to reshape the country’s energy future

solar panels Rajasthan
Big solar projects in India's state of Rajasthan are being located in districts with relatively low population density, little water, limited agriculture and no industrialisation. Image: India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy

The deserts of Rajasthan have long been known for their spare beauty and their intense sunshine. Now that sun is being turned into a surge of solar power expansion that may one day power not just Rajasthan but a wide swath of India with clean energy.

Dhursar, a village in Northwest Rajasthan’s Pokharan Tehsil, is at the heart of that expansion. The village of 1,400 people already is home to a 40-megawatt solar voltaic plant developed by Rajasthan Sun Technique Energy Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of Reliance Power.

Now the company in June is scheduled to open a 100-megawatt, 620-acre project that will concentrate the sun’s rays to convert water to superheated steam and generate electric power. The $345 million project, with backing from the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral banks, is the largest project of its kind under India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, which aims to install 20,000 megawatts of solar power in India by 2022.

Firms are also starting work to build more than a thousand miles of transmission lines to get the power to where it is needed, with up to $500 million in financial backing including $300 million from the Asian Development Bank and $200 million channeled through the Climate Investment Funds

Rajasthan, with its 300 days a year of sunshine and relatively cheap desert land, has set a goal even more ambitious than India’s. In this year’s state budget, the newly formed state government announced it hoped to install 25,000 megawatts of solar energy in the state within the next five years, and infrastructure to transmit that power to the national grid.

If the plan succeeds, it would put India ahead of countries like China, the United States and Italy in solar energy production, and have it chasing world leader Germany, which has over 32,000 megawatts of solar capacity, according to a government statement.

“The state government is working on plans to develop logistics and attract investors targeting capacity of 25,000 megawatts in Rajasthan,” said Chandra Shekhar Rajan, additional chief secretary for infrastructure with the Government of Rajasthan. He admitted such a scale-up of solar energy was “a mammoth task,” but said the project was attracting interest, including recently from two Japanese public sector energy giants, METI and NEDO who had offered to help devise the state’s solar plan, as well as from KfW, a German development bank.

Rajasthan is no newcomer to renewable energy.  Since the 1990s, the state has been home to a range of wind energy projects, with about 2,800 megawatts of wind capacity now installed, out of an estimated potential capacity of 5,000 megawatts. Altogether wind power in Rajasthan accounts for about 13 per cent of India’s wind energy production.

But Rajasthan’s Great Indian Thar Desert, the test site for India’s first underground explosion of a nuclear weapon 15 years ago, may now help make India a solar power as well. The desert, set in Rajasthan’s largest district Jaisalmer, near the border with Pakistan, it is a place of sand dunes and shrub thickets – but also, increasingly, solar installations that could help change the character of India’s energy development.

Commitment to cutting emissions

India committed at the UN. Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 to reduce its climate-changing emissions, per unit of GDP, by 20 to 25 per cent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

The country is currently the world’s seventh largest emitter of global warming pollution and the fifth biggest producer of emissions from burning fossil fuels. Sixty-eight per cent of those emissions from fossil fuel use come from creating energy for the world’s second most populous country, according to India’s energy ministry.

Today the country has 2.28 million megawatts of power generating capacity, and about 12.4 per cent of that comes from renewable energy, the ministry says.

Of the 2,632 megawatts of solar power now installed in India, Rajasthan so far has only 730 megawatts, putting it in second place behind the state of Gujarat, with 916 megawatts, according to India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

But Rajasthan, India’s largest state and 60 per cent covered by sunny desert, is now attracting the world’s interest as a solar hotspot.

“Around 1 lakh (100,000) square kilometres of barren land is available in the northwest arid belt of the state at cheaper rates that could be utilised for large scale solar projects. The government is formulating the policy to harness the enormous solar potential of the region to meet the country’s growing energy requirements”, said Alok, Rajasthan’s energy secretary, who has no surname.

Backers of the new solar projects predict they will create jobs and new income for once remote villages. A 2013 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency says renewable energy projects in India have generated direct or indirect jobs for nearly 392,000 people, and the renewable power sector is expected to grow by 27 per cent over the next five years, with 40 per cent of that growth in solar power

Besides large solar installations, he said, the government is studying the possibility of grid-connected rooftop solar photovoltaic units for households. The Solar Energy Corporation of India estimates that 130 million homes could potentially be equipped with the units, creating 25,000 megawatts of generating capacity.

Most of the state’s planned solar projects are being located in four Rajasthan districts – Barmer, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Jodphur – with relatively low population density, little water, limited agriculture and no industrialisation, said B.K. Makhija, the technical director for Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation, the agency that has been given sole responsibility for approving projects.

Most of the project sites are set near national highways to ease transport, or along a portion of the Indira Gandhi Canal to meet water requirements, Makhija said.

Enough water?

Solar power can be a water-hungry technology, particularly when solar energy is used to heat water and drive turbines to create electricity – and water is scarce in Rajasthan. Almost all the villages in the project areas are dependent on rainwater for what limited agriculture is practiced, though some parts of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer districts get irrigation water from the Indira Gandhi Canal.

Many villagers also have tube wells as source of Irrigation water, but high concentrations of salt make the water of limited use for agriculture or drinking. How the solar projects may affect wells or access to canal water remains unclear, though some villages have benefitted from water lines being run from the canal to solar projects, with pipes installed to villages as well, or from solar companies digging reservoirs for neighbouring communities.

As solar projects are capital intensive, the government aims to set up “solar parks” – much like special economic zones, with a range of tax breaks and other incentives – to make the solar boom more financially attractive for investors. Land purchases may be subsidised, for instance, and customs duties lifted on some technologies.

“Large scale projects like solar parks help reduce the cost of investment by providing common infrastructural facilities, thus reducing the costs of investment and resulting in cheaper solar power,” Makhija said. Investment to generate one megawatt of solar power today in the region costs around 50 million rupees ($930,000), he said. But generating 1,000 megawatts of power cuts the investment cost per megawatt by almost 60 per cent, he said.

A planned solar park at Bhadla, spread over 10,000 hectares, aims to generate 3,000 megawatts of power within next five to 10 years.

Getting power where it’s neeeded

Building transmission lines to get that new power to users is equally important, regional officials say.

“Work has already started to establish 1,852 kilometers (1,150 miles) of transmission lines of varying capacities to connect Bhadla Solar Park to the national grid”, said L.N. Nimawat, chief project engineer of Rajasthan Vidyut Prasaran Nigam Limited, developer of the transmission project. To build such a massive network, the state government will get financial assistance of up to $500 million from the Asian Development Bank and the Clean Technology Fund.

The Clean Technology Fund of the Climate Investment Funds channels donor funds from wealthier countries to developing nations working to install clean electricity and transport technology.

“The Rajasthan renewable energy transmission investment program is one of the largest Climate Investment Fund-Clean Technology Fund investment programs to date,” said Len George, energy specialist with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Money to help communities near the solar projects may also come from a new charitable giving law passed in India.

Last year, India became the first country to require corporate giants to give 2 per cent of their net profits to charitable causes under “corporate social responsibility” legislation. Roughly 8,000 Indian companies now must make such donations, which has the potential to create a social spending pot of at least $2 billion a year.

As big companies eye solar projects in Rajasthan, some of that money may turn into better water, health and education opportunities in villages near the new projects, officials such as George say.

Backers of the new solar projects predict they will create jobs and new income for once remote villages. A 2013 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency says renewable energy projects in India have generated direct or indirect jobs for nearly 392,000 people, and the renewable power sector is expected to grow by 27 per cent over the next five years, with 40 per cent of that growth in solar power.

Hit by a lack of skilled workers while it built a 50-megawatt solar project two years ago in Nokh village, Godawari Green Energy Ltd. now has plans to send two local students a year to an industrial training institute, with jobs at the plant awaiting them afterward, said Sanjay Pandey, the company’s assistant general manager.

Jobs and education

Plant officials say providing jobs is a good way to win the support of local people. “Without the cooperation of local villagers, it is difficult to operate. Employing the locals at the plants is a long term investment”, said B.L. Sharma, deputy general manager of Vikram Solar, a 40 megawatt project in Bap village.

The solar projects have so far produced little in the way of protests in Rajasthan, apart from some instances where villagers have approached solar plants demanding jobs or investment in facilities in their communities.

Government schools that once struggled for funding now say they have seen a turnaround. “Just a few months back the students used to sit on the floor,” said Bhanwar Singh Gehlot, headmaster of the middle government school in Sanwara village, between the villages of Bap and Nokh. Now “the solar companies have provided us with tables, chairs, tiled flooring, drinking water and fans in the classrooms,” he said.

Virendra, one student at the school, said he now aspires to become an engineer and work at the solar plant. “The solar company is ready to fund my technical education and has also assured me a job when I complete my engineering degree”, the 18-year-old said.

Other residents say they are selling some of their land to solar companies to buy luxuries they once couldn’t afford. “Soon I will buy a television and a desert cooler from the money I get,” said Sang Singh, a resident of Mangaliyon ki Dhani, near Nokh village, who now works as a driver for a neighbouring solar plant. Other residents are trading in traditional desert grass huts for stone houses.

Hospitals and health centers also have seen changes as a result of the solar surge, including women in labour now delivering in air conditioned and solar-power-lit rooms rather than by torchlight.

“Until last year, the hospital was deprived of the basic facilities required for local patients and they had to travel several miles to Phalodi for treatment,” said Dr. M.L. Parihar, a medical officer in the Bap community health centre. “Despite several requests to the government to improve the facilities, nothing was done till local solar producers got concerned about social responsibility and provided airconditioners and power generators at the community hospital,” he said.

Ashok, a postman in Phalodi, said that in two years the new flow of solar money “has completed changed the face of the market in Phalodi. With constructed houses, it has grown to a town from a small village.”

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →