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Why India's solar power sector needs an innovation-driven transformation


India aims to achieve 100GW of solar power production by 2022. At first, such an ambitious project may seem like a herculean task. But on the other hand, it may not be too difficult for the country to achieve its long-term energy goals. India aims to achieve 450 GW Renewable energy capacities by 2030, of which about 280 GW is expected to be solar energy. There is a huge potential in the country for solar power due to the geographical location and terrain of the country. This gives the country an edge over other nations.

Bhadla solar park in Rajasthan is the largest producer of solar power plants with a capacity of 2,245 MW. Currently in India, 90% of the current solar photovoltaic (PV) panel installations are based on crystalline silicon, which maxes out at about 22% efficiency. There are other technologies being developed such as ‘perovskite crystal coated panels’ which can bring up this efficiency to about 27%. Also, efficiency improvements led to price reductions to such levels that PVs acquired the most dominant position on the world energy stage. Global investment in new renewable energy capacity in the past decade was over $2.5 trillion, with more solar power capacity installed than other generation technologies, according to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2019 report published by the UN Environment Programme.

Floating solar plants are also something worth observing; the cooling effect of the surrounding water allows floating panels to produce up to 10% more electricity and slows module degradation. Floating solar plants currently being developed in India are as follows:

· Omkareshwar Dam floating solar farm. Capacity – 600MW. Estimated investment – Rs 30 bn

·

, Kayamkulam solar project. Capacity – 105MW. Estimated investment – Rs 3.43 bn

· NTPC, Ramagundam solar power plant. Capacity – 100 MW. Estimated investment – Rs 4.32bn

That said, India has already proven itself a leader in solar development, having achieved its previous 2022 target of 20 GW – way earlier than expected. The country also hopes to leverage the latest technologies to establish a solar template. However, managing and maintaining large-scale solar facilities could be a challenge for the country as there are several electrical components required which India currently imports from its neighbour China and other countries. A hurdle for India is its current dependence on imports to a large degree for solar modules. Another hurdle is financing rates for loans etc. in the renewable sector, which is around 12-14%, which discourages companies from investing in solar projects. Thus, it needs to gauge the availability of technical components, manpower, and site selection carefully before taking the process to such magnitude.

The solar industry is now exploring how digital tools can help them unlock more of the sun’s potential – amid the restrictions and challenges. The solar industry in India has received considerable support from the government during the pandemic. Initiatives such as reducing repo rate, making solar plant O&M an essential service, removing tariff caps for solar tenders, PLI scheme among others are some of the steps the government has taken to help the sector.

Earlier this year the IREDA invited bids from solar module manufacturers to set up manufacturing units in India, offering them benefits under the PLI Scheme. This is a huge step towards reducing dependency on imports when it comes to solar modules. This will reduce dependency on oil-producing companies, and even bring down fuel imports.

As countries around the world look on, India has a huge opportunity to tap its resources, bring in the latest technology in use, and use the geological advantage to become the global manufacturing hub for renewable energy. A policy framework encompassing both tariff and non-tariff barriers to boost domestic solar manufacturing is needed.

Solar PV tariff dipped to Rs 2.44 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) from about Rs 15 / kWh in the past decade in India. The current decade will be accompanied by more innovations and developments, as the country has already learned the art of installing power plants with capacities going up to thousands of megawatts. Here is how technology is playing its part in setting up solar structures and can make it a more efficient process. With the rise in demand, storage will become a critical part when it comes to renewable energy. The inclusion of monitoring through the Internet of Things and automation will make plants flexible for fluctuating demand. Silicon-based solar cells, for example, are well-established technology. They may, however, be taken over by perovskite solar cells — synthetic hybrid organic-inorganic compounds.

Asset and demand-side management will be key and data analytics and digitization of storage could play a major role here. There are immense opportunities for innovation in the field of solar and renewable energy. The innovation in the design of solar plants and maintaining grid stability will also help in changing regulations and standards, as solar continues to gain currency. It will be interesting to see how India leverages these changing technologies in the face of several challenges it faces in the energy sector. Digitization delivers unmatched improvements in efficiency and modern technology is helping to drive down development costs.

India imports roughly 85% of its solar cells and modules from nearby China. However, it plans to make 36 GW of solar components domestically within the next few years. Moreover, it has enough IT talent that can help in cultivating IT-based solutions. If India continues to build on technological gains, it will be able to achieve long-term renewable energy targets easily.

The writer is Managing Director, Salasar Techno Engineering Ltd.



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