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Solar drives that need more fuel

New Delhi, July 3: On a full-attendance day at a business process outsourcing centre in a village in Uttar Pradesh, 40 boys and girls work on computers, each of their desktops powered by rooftop solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity.

Their workplace, a two-storey building, is the only structure in Sonari, a village of about 1,700 people and located about 50km from Lucknow on the road to Sitapur, where electricity is guaranteed nine hours a day and six days a week — 240 units solar power each week.

Sonari’s BPO outpost, which is also used by local villagers to charge their cellphones, represents a rare example of solar energy replacing a fossil fuel — diesel — under a commercial initiative without any subsidy from the government, according to renewable energy sector analysts.

India’s efforts to expand its installed solar energy capacity have gained momentum with the capacity rising from less than 50MW in mid-2011 to nearly 980MW by June 2012. But experts caution that achieving the target of 20,000MW solar energy by 2022, announced two years ago by the Union government, will demand tweaks of policy and innovations in financing, technology management and land use.

The high cost of solar energy technology and poor distribution and servicing networks have hampered efforts in the past to expand solar energy, a senior official with the Union ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) said.

But solar panel prices have come down in recent years. “The Sonari example shows that solar energy costs can be comparable to the costs of diesel even without government subsidy,” said Rahul Singh, an engineer-entrepreneur who heads the solar energy division of Gram Oorja Solutions, the company that set up the solar panels for the BPO centre.

Gram Oorja has also erected a 10KW solar plant through funds from a private entity in Darewadi, a village in Maharashtra, whose 40 households have each paid Rs 1,000 for the solar electricity connection.

“There are examples of complex (solar energy) technology solutions delivered to rural folk through a sustainable business model,” said Hari Natarajan, a senior consultant with Inclusive Infrastructure Development Consulting, Bangalore, who has been involved in promoting energy infrastructure in rural areas.

Natarajan cites the model established by the Bangalore-based Selco Solar, a private enterprise, which has over the past 17 years helped establish more than 100,000 solar lighting systems in rural homes across Karnataka.

“It has 30 branch offices, each with two technicians, and servicing is part of the package,” Natarajan said. But we need initiatives to make financing of solar energy products more attractive to banks, he said.

The non-government Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, has cautioned that a “target-based approach and 100 per cent subsidy” for solar energy is proving counterproductive.

At sites where solar energy systems are subsidised 100 per cent, the quality of service and maintenance tends to be poor, according to a draft report on the solar energy programme prepared by the CSE.

The CSE has also argued that efforts to establish off-grid solar lighting should focus on the 10,600 villages across the country that are too far from electricity grids and thus are unlikely to get grid electricity in the near future. Its report said there were examples in which villages received grid electricity connections within a year after getting solar lighting systems.

Amid concerns about land use for large solar panel projects, the CSE has suggested that 2.5 hectares per MW should be set as a mandatory ceiling for land use for solar power plants receiving preferential tariffs.

The CSE draft report suggests that rooftop and canal-top solar panels be encouraged to reduce land use. It cites the example of a 1MW solar project near Ahmedabad, Gujarat, whose solar panels have been erected along a 750-metre stretch of a branch of the Narmada canal.

“State governments also need to show more commitment to solar energy. They shouldn’t treat it as just a central effort,” said a MNRE official. Just two states — Gujarat and Rajasthan — account for more than 850MW of India’s current installed solar energy capacity of 980MW.

But a CSE analysis suggests that Chhattisgarh provides an example of a state that has achieved significant progress on solar energy. Chhattisgarh has 1400 villages lighted by solar energy, accounting for more than 20 per cent of India’s solar powered villages.