Steps India could take to accelerate its Renewable Energy transition
With some encouraging news from India late last year about two conglomerates committing over $20 billion* and the government’s lofty COP26 pledge (500 GW of renewable energy and a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030, among other things), I thought it would be a good time to share a few ideas about steps the government, the private sector, and think tanks could take to help accelerate this transition.
India’s renewable energy sector is on track to generate more than half of the country’s electricity by 2030, as promised at COP26. However, this would require solar energy sources to expand their contribution from the meager 13% to 50%.The following are proposals to take advantage of these opportunities and speed the transition to renewable energy:
1. Prioritize #RoofTopSolar over Large scale utility.
Roof top solar is a low-cost option that doesn’t necessitate the reclamation of large swathes of land or the clearing of agriculture and forest lands. As a result, solar PV farms and wind farms have the lowest energy density (measured in land usage; albeit, to be fair, these land uses are eternal and reusable compared to coal or gas mines), and India doesn’t have much to spare anyhow.
So, the country needs to focus on individual #RooftopSolar instead. Flat roofs, common in most of India, provide the most optimum angle for mounting panels, unlike in western countries where you are limited by the azimuth and pitch of the roof. The secondary benefit is the use of bifacial solar panels. Since the panels aren’t attached directly to the roof but are instead set up on a stand, they make it possible to use bifacial panels, which capture reflected light through a second surface on the back. This can boost efficiency by up to 20% in the same area.
Fulfilling 100% of electricity needs by #RooftopSolar alone isn’t doable or practical, and the utility still needs to make up for the deficit. For that, a combination of nuclear and solar PV on existing land (e.g. water bodies like canals, lakes, ponds, rivers, or parking, train stations, highways, railroads, etc.) should be prioritized over clearing forests or farms.
2. Certify the product, include the subsidy in the price, and publicize the rate (like the LNG cylinder)
Contrary to general intuition, government programs in India have much more credibility and legitimacy than private ones. A recent 40 GW solar rooftop scheme under MNRE (ministry of renewable energy) through state power distribution companies (DISCOMs) was filled within days. Any product or service stamped with the Indian govt. logo assures buyers that it’s a vetted program with the lowest possible price.
So, if the government certifies solar products, includes subsidies, and publishes prices, as it already does for LNG gas cylinders, it will increase adoption exponentially while also discouraging theft and black marketing.
The exact steps would look like this:
— Evaluate and certify solar PV companies and their products**
— These products will carry the Indian Govt. seal (both digital and physical) on the board itself, declaring that buy and sale beyond the approved channel is punishable by law.
— Incorporate the prevailing subsidy scheme within the price itself, i.e., customers don’t have to chase after them.
— Publish the all inclusive rates
3. Ease the net metering process
Net metering is the process whereby the surplus energy from solar panels is sold back to the power companies and the customer’s bill is adjusted accordingly. This seemingly easy process is one of the most troublesome ones in practice and none of the 3 installers that I talked to showed any interest in pursuing that step for me on my behalf, unlike what we see in the US where installers often apply for net metering on customers’ behalf. This process can be very easily simplified with easy online form submissions etc. and is very similar to other public programs that the government has recently undertaken (e.g., Aadhar card, passport etc.).
4. Deregulate part of the Electric Market and introduce SREC
Another step the government can take is to de-regulate the electric energy market as much as possible, to allow SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Credit) trading, particularly in the residential sector, and to enact laws to reduce GHE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), particularly for high polluters, in order to encourage SREC trading.***
With such laws enacted, companies that do not use renewable energy can buy SREC credit to compensate for their GHE emissions. he SREC will be supplied by the residential customers with solar plants on their roofs, generating income for them and incentivizing more people to go solar.This will also encourage people to install bigger systems, which would generate a lot more surplus energy, which they can then sell on the open market.
Even though there are a lot of ways to improve renewable energy in terms of efficiency, battery chemistry, energy density, sustainable materials, etc., which are beyond the scope of this blog, here are a few ideas that are uniquely suited to the Indian market:
1. Build GPS trackable panels
I see potential (and need) for GPS trackable panels in the Indian market. These panels will have a tiny little, tamper proof, GPS chip soldered to the body of the panels itself. It wouldn’t cost much and help dissuade theft and black-market sales.
2. Develop a repair and service model
Currently, the repair and service market for solar panels is almost nonexistent in India (where customers of most products rely heavily on aftermarket service providers to keep things running). If a small pebble falls on a panel, damaging its circuitry, a very likely scenario in India, you have no alternative but to replace the entire panel, a major setback for the masses. Shipping a huge 3'X6' panel to a few service centers in big cities won’t work either. As a result, companies like Adani, Tata, Mahindra, and Reliance Energy, who aspire to be dominant players in the market, should consider sharing their repair technologies and parts as widely as possible so that independent service centers, such as TV repair shops, and DIYers can repair them cheaply.
3. Develop, build, and sell solar as an appliance
India needs to go one step further than western countries, where Solar-as-a-service (think Community Solar) is a well-known phenomenon, and build on the Solar-as-an-appliance model.
India has a vast middle class with millions of families employed by the public and private sector. Many of these jobs are transferable, however. So, there is naturally a hesitation about going solar for that transfer-of-jobs situation. Similar challenges arise for people renting a house versus owning it. If a solar panel is treated as an appliance, people can move it along with them just like a refrigerator or furniture. With the inexpensive and plentiful labor force, moving a solar system bolted to a stand is not much different than moving a satellite dish. When net-metering is as easy as porting a cell phone number, solar systems will be like appliances that you can take with you when you move.
4. Focus on foldable, flexible panels
Piggybacking on earlier points about land scarcity as well as the fact that there is a huge rental community, especially in the cities where power outages are more acute, flexible and foldable panels (both of which are already available in the western markets) have an added advantage in India. It would provide those who either don’t have any or enough roof space an opportunity to go solar. The flexible panels can be hung on the wall or on the balcony, doubling as shades on hot summer days.
India has a trifecta of things going for her, namely opportunity, resources, and the will. All that needs to be done is to make some small changes to its policies and reorganize its resources.
* : This number keeps going up with new rounds of commitments.
** : The government does publish a list of some manufacturers and their models currently eligible for subsidies.
***: India does have the concept of SREC, but the infrastructure to list and trade SREC is severely fragmented and totally lacking in the residential sector. And the low emission requirement that fuels the SREC market is also lacking.