India challenges USA and China in solar race

India challenges USA and China in solar race

Arianna Pescini
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Following years of investments beset by structural problems, India is fast becoming the world's third largest solar market, having recently built the world's largest solar farm

With a 137% increase this year, and more than 10 GW from solar, India is quickly adopting renewables. With solar the country has found a resource with which to face the challenges of the coming decades. According to the renewables market consultancy and knowledge services provider Bridge to India, with steady annual growth of 8-10 GW, India could reach 100 GW of installed capacity by 2022. "The cost of this energy is becoming increasingly competitive," explains managing director Vinay Rustagi, "it’s environmentally sustainable and widely available across India. The government sees in this resource a major opportunity for reaching important economic and social targets, like 24-hour access to electricity for all citizens, businesses and factories." The enormous investment (estimated at over 150 billion dollars), long in the making, has received a boost during the last two years thanks to government support and a bullish market. By developing photovoltaic and CSP systems, and for obvious space concerns, promoting the installation of rooftop solar panels, India is positioning itself to become the world’s third largest solar energy player (behind China and the USA).

Record-breaking solar farm

India’s potential capacity is remarkable. The India National Institute of Solar Energy estimates it at 750 GW. Current distribution is limited to a handful of Indian states, among which central Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu (in the southeast) and Rajasthan (in the north), which last year signed a deal with the private firm Adani Power to bring online a 10 GW solar farm. The greenest state by far is Gujarat, in the northwest of the subcontinent, which is home to one fourth of all India’s solar plants. One such project is Charanka Park in the city of Patan, covering 2,000 hectares and generating 500 MW. That’s nothing compared to Kamuthi Solar Park in Tamil Nadu, the crown jewel of Indian solar. Beating out California’s Topaz Solar Farm, it is the largest solar farm in the world. At a cost of 679 million dollars, it was built in just 8 months, in a project that employed 8,000 people. The park is made up of 2.5 million solar panels, which are cleaned and dusted daily by small solar-powered robots. The project went online in September. It has a capacity of 648 MW, the equivalent energy needed to power 150,000 homes. Kamuthi Solar Park is just the most spectacular node in a renewables development network that will enable India to cut its CO2 emissions by 35% by 2030.

Structural problems and new targets

The Indian government has set itself ambitious energy targets, for example to develop one hundred smart cities to serve as models of sustainability across the subcontinent. However, it will have to contend with India’s many contradictions and unknowns. Particular challenges will be expanding access to electricity, curbing environmental devastation and satisfying an energy demand that will rise sharply in the coming years. According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, the nation’s energy consumption has doubled since 2000, and by 2040, when it will have become the world’s most populous country, there will be 580 million new electricity consumers in the market. There are currently 240 million people living without electricity. Another point not to be overlooked is India’s staggering dependency on fossil fuels, and coal in particular, which supplies 75% of total consumption. "India has always suffered from an energy deficit," continues Rustagi, "which has forced us to import nearly half of the raw materials to power the country. That’s why massive investments have been made in coal-fired plants, as it is the only fuel found in abundance throughout India. But the negative consequences are many, from air pollution to inefficient energy distribution."
The IEA estimates that by 2040 the Indian economy will grow fivefold, and that over half of its energy will be generated from nuclear and renewables. Solar will be the main renewable source, given that the costs of this sector will drop by 40-45%. In spite of the various projects already underway, the transition will be slow. "We aim to make our energy mix more sustainable," adds the managing director. "India’s total capacity is 309 GW, and just 15% of that (excluding hydropower) is from clean energies, with wind predominating and followed by solar and biomass. Further investments will lead to environmental and social benefits, but it will take time."

Cooperation is key

In the near term, India must continue to form economic partnerships with other states in order to fill the gaps in its limited technical, financial and natural resources. "We can identify three main areas for cooperation," concludes Rustagi. "India will first of all continue to import oil and gas, especially from the Middle East and Africa. The government has also signed numerous agreements to receive technical and financial support from countries like the United States, Germany, France, the UK and Japan. Thirdly, in the renewables sector, the necessary capital will have to come from Europe, the United States, the Middle East and other Asian states. India is working to secure itself a leadership role as a founding member of the International Solar Alliance, an initiative to enhance multilateral international cooperation among developing nations in the solar energy sector."