Solar-powering Digital India

Uninterrupted electricity supply is essential to realise the dream of Digital India. Can solar energy serve as a stellar solution to this problem?

ashis-sanyal

Ashis Sanyal | June 13, 2015


#solar power   #solar energy   #solar cells   #digital india   #ashis sanyal solar energy  

In August 2014, the Narendra Modi government, aiming to connect billions of Indians, announced an ambitious Digital India vision. The programme aims to deliver all government services to citizens electronically by connecting rural areas with high-speed internet network. The project has even attracted support from the likes of Facebook and Google to usher in this new era of connectivity in India.
However, can India really bridge this digital divide? At a time when the country is reeling under power crisis, uninterrupted connectivity looks like a distant dream.

Countrywide information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure is a pre-requisite for comprehensive implementation of e-governance and more inclusive Digital India programme. One of the key learnings from the implementation of ongoing nationwide core and support e-gov infrastructure is the lack of uninterrupted and reliable basic electricity in the rural India, even at the block level.

This experience has been evident in case of the 1,00,000 internet-enabled common services centre (CSC) outlets for government and private service delivery, being established at the village/ panchayat level, or similarly, in implementation of the state wide area networks (SWAN), having more than 6,000 points of presence of electronic infrastructure in district towns and rural blocks.

In apprehension of unreliable power in rural areas, these large projects had provided for alternative sources of power like UPS and diesel generator, having their inherent dependencies. In many cases the power situation happened to be so grave that the UPS systems remained ineffective due to non-availability of bare minimum continuous power necessary to charge the batteries!

India’s energy story

It is reported that out of 1.4 billion people in the world who have no access to electricity, India accounts for over 300 million, residing mostly in villages. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates India would add between 600 GW to 1,200 GW of additional new power generation capacity before 2050.  The technologies and fuel sources India adopts, as it adds this electricity generation capacity, may make significant impact to global resource usage and environmental issues.

In a detailed May 2014 report, the central electricity authority (CEA) anticipated the peak electrical energy demand for 2016–17 to be 218 GW increasing to 298 GW by 2021-22. With the current rate average transmission and distribution loss (pathetically high at about 32 percent) and theft of electricity (common in most parts of urban India reported to be 1.5 percent of India’s GDP) prevailing, we need to generate additional 135 GW by 2017, to meet the projected demand due to anticipated faster growth of the manufacturing sector and the rise in domestic demand. With a demand of 300 GW the installed capacity of 400 GW would be required.

While cities and towns experience occasional power cuts and brown-outs – in secondary and tertiary towns – access to quality, reliable and uninterrupted power, the cornerstone for economic progress for any country, has been a perennial problem in rural India. The Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), under the Bharat Nirman scheme, and Remote Villages Electrification Programme under the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE), are two ongoing efforts for remote village electrification.

However, capacity of conventional grid-based supply has been showing insignificant progress in remote areas, even after privatisation being promoted in a few states, as many areas remain perennially non-feasible from commercial angle due to difficult terrain. MNRE is having programmes for such villages using new and renewable energy resources.

Go solar for Digital India

Though environment-unfriendly fossil fuels curently contribute 80 percent of the world’s primary energy, the changing pattern of the pricing model for solar power among many other renewable and sustainable energy alternatives predicts that solar electricity would soon be cost-effective to the fossil fuel electricity, having a potential to become the future energy source.

As per an Ernst & Young report on renewable energy country attractiveness indices, ranking countries based on regulatory environment, fiscal support, unexploited resources, suitability to different technologies and other factors determining renewable energy growth in a country, India maintains a ranking within the top five countries in the world. It ranks third in terms of biomass and fourth in hydropower and in concentrated solar power (CSP) capacity. It is stated that India’s potential for total renewable energy production can reach 220 GW by 2032, which is the current installed total energy capacity in India.

India’s landmass is endowed with one of the highest global solar radiations, with potential energy content of about 5,000 trillion kWh per year, considering most parts receiving 4-7 kWh per square metre per day for 300 clear sunny days.  While 8 percent of India’s total area is barren, 1 percent of land has the potential to produce 2,000 billion Kwh of solar electricity with no need of supply of any raw material. In this context, the current Solar Mission plans to cover 20 million square metres by 2020, to generate up to 20 GW grid-based solar power and 2 GW of off-grid solar power.

Advantage of solar energy is that it is available throughout the peak load demand time of the day and therefore it would substantially bring down the peak energy costs, obviating the need to build additional generation and transmission capacity. Solar energy conversion equipment systems have longer life and need lesser maintenance with low running costs and hence provide higher energy infrastructure security. Unlike conventional thermal power generation from coal, solar energy generation does not cause pollution and generate clean power.

The multi-tier digital infrastructure is the cornerstone of implementation of Digital India, which has the focus on delivery of services to citizens located in the remote corners of the country. These are the locations, which suffer most from lack of uninterrupted quality power. Many e-governance initiatives rolled out in rural India experience worse power and bandwidth conditions. Intended benefits from those schemes cannot be derived for these reasons.

For remote locations where easy, convenient and cost-effective grid connections are not available and pollution free and environmentally safe power generation is a priority, standalone local captive solar energy generation is highly suitable. Off-grid local generation also provides with transmission loss and fault free uninterrupted reliable power connection leading to energy independence to local community, as this power can be used for lighting, internet-enabled communication systems and other usual purposes like, heating, pumping, small scale industry utilisation, and so on.

Further, solar energy, as a substitute of conventional sources of energy with current pricing system, works economical in those areas that are using diesel generators as a primary source of electricity. There are a few examples of petrol pumps being run using solar energy and commercial buildings where solar energy are providing a very cost-efficient proposition against prevailing high electricity rates.

Switch to accelerated mode

Despite several schemes undertaken by central and state governments in the last three decades or so to provide reliable uninterrupted power supply to all corners of the country, as of today it remains a distant dream. While implementing various pan-India e-governance initiatives under the national e-governance plan (NeGP), the common experience for both the service providers and the services seekers has been lack of uninterrupted quality power over 24-hour cycle.

The Digital India programme, in its nine key action areas, aggressively suggests online disposition of all informational and transactional citizen services. The NOFN project envisages broadband connectivity through optical fibre to all panchayat villages, numbering two and half lakhs, located over the length and breadth of the country. All these would remain a dream in the absence of continuous power in remote corners of the country. Solar electricity systems can effectively meet the demand of power in dispersed locations, till grid power can penetrate deep in far-flung locations, which apparently, with current rate of progress, is not going to happen in next 15 to 20 years.

Get the manufacturing policy right

While the installed grid connected solar power in the country was 2.2 GW in January 2014 it is expected to install an additional 10 GW capacity by 2017 and a total of 20 GW by 2022, according to the MNRE. However, this target has been revised to 100 GW by 2020 as mentioned by Piyush Goyal, power and renewable energy minister, at an event. During the next five years NTPC plans to install 3.5 GW solar capacity over its planned plants in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana. NTPC is also promoting its subsidiary for selling bundled solar power units, along with conventional power units, which would help power distribution companies to meet renewable purchase obligations more easily.

At present, there are over 80 PV module manufacturers with more than 10 among them capable of taking up large turnkey projects for plant system integration and commissioning. A simple policy input can greatly enhance the domestic manufacturing of PV and system integration of solar systems to meet the increasing demand. 

Currently, the share of solar energy (2 GW) in the total installed capacity  of power generation (224 GW) is less than 1 percent. The share of renewable energy is 12.5 percent (28 GW). This overly poor statistic needs to be improved by taking an aggressive approach towards solar energy creation. A good mix of energy production, especially for those states – Rajasthan, most parts of the southern and western states – where potential for solar energy production is very high, a particular state can also achieve power surplus situation than its internal demand and can sell excess capacity to meet power demand in other states, thereby generate revenues.

Innovate for power

Energy saved is energy created. It is reported that about one-third of loss of electricity in India is due to grid transmission and distribution losses, consumer theft and inefficient billing. Enactment and implementation of regulatory and institutional framework, reformatory market structure, recognising electricity theft as cognisable criminal offence, constitution of special courts for speedy trial and penalties for offenders can make very significant savings in energy. Further, the government should consider funding research for innovative solutions to counter energy losses/leakages due to transmission, distribution and theft cases.

Covering the irrigation canal with solar panels (as very effectively done in Gujarat on Narmada canals) for solar farms would have the added advantage of preventing evaporation of irrigation water from the canal. Another innovative solution to overcome the major disadvantage of the photo-voltaic type solar power not producing electricity during night or on a cloudy day is to establish pumped-storage hydroelectricity station locally, wherever possible, which can generate electricity during night time. The ground water pumping power can be met directly by solar power while hydro-stations can produce electricity with pre-defined capacity during night.

Innovative PPP models can be applied for creating and running solar power generation plants with dedicated infrastructure, to be established in the sparsely populated regions. The government agencies can act on land acquisition, necessary permits, dedicated common infrastructure for transmission and distribution and all other site logistics (access roads, water, etc.) through state and centrally administered power agencies, while private sector can actually develop and operate the plants. Policies may be enacted in resourcing renewable energy sector, especially for solar energy sub-sector, so that financing, both equity and debt financing, in this area becomes attractive. To make it happen, the government may consider transferring coal cess to the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA), which in turn can finance innovative solar projects using this fund. Borrowing norms for IREDA from the market can also be relaxed to encourage the financing.

The success stories of solar power installation in the country reveal other local, technical and regulatory issues, which needed to be resolved. Generally 1 MW solar power generation needs 4.5 acres of land. Therefore, a 20 MW solar power plant would need at least 90 acres of land. It is difficult to get terrain for such large sites and that mostly poses challenging engineering design for regular module array design utilising the landscape effectively without altering its topography. A specific land acquisition and regulation policy for installation of solar energy plants may not be out of place and this aspect needs immediate attention. There are other environmental issues like corrosive air and soil and wind loading, which require customised mechanical and structural designs, to obtain maximum efficiency from the modular array and at the same time to keep the ecological balance of the identified solar plant sites.

It is important now to appreciate that the energy issue would appear as the most relevant one to realise the dream of Digital India. A multi-pronged attack to solve this problem is essential and solar energy can be a stellar solution to this issue. There is great potential of solar energy in this country. The entire energy system can be decentralised, community-based, even regionalised on a larger scale, to feed the dispersed electronic infrastructure essential for running the Digital India. Government has to create the necessary policy environment for appropriate investment climate to attract banks and financial institutions, to provide necessary finance for setting up solar power projects and also to facilitate state governments, regulators, power utilities and local self-government bodies, to promote grid/offgrid solar applications to meet local power requirement for dispersed digital infrastructure.


(The article appears in the June 1-15, 2015 issue)

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