Offgrid Uptake

Decentralised solar applications gain traction

Solar street lights in Malana village, Himachal Pradesh

Three billion people in the world lack access to affordable and abundant energy services to support their daily needs and livelihoods. Among them, 1.2 billion are without any electricity; about 221 million of these are residing in rural India. Offgrid renewable energy systems can play a key role in serving this section of society. In order to address their energy demand, the Government of India has been promoting decentralised solar applications such as solar pumps, solar-powered microgrids, solar lamps and solar street lights for many years.

Renewable Watch takes a look at the developments in this space in the past year…

Solar pumps

The approval of the Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM) by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on February 19, 2019 was a key highlight in the solar pump space during the year. The policy has initiated large-scale solarisation of the existing pumps, installation of new solar pumps, apart from setting up small grid-connected solar plants. The scheme has a total outlay of Rs 1,400 billion, to be distributed over a period of 10 years. Of this, the central government is estimated to contribute Rs 480 billion. Under the scheme, apart from setting up decentralised solar projects and solarising existing grid-connected pumps, the government aims to install 1.75 million stand-alone solar pumps by 2022. The central and state governments will assist with a 30 per cent financial assistance each, while the remaining 40 per cent will be paid by farmers. And the central government will increase its share of assistance to 50 per cent in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Lakshadweep and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

The scheme has been well received by the state governments, which took it upon themselves to promote solar pumps. In November 2019, the Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency issued a tender for the installation of 5,000 small solar irrigation pumps. In October 2019, the Haryana Electricity Regulatory Commission approved a pilot project for the installation of 468 solar pumps with a cumulative capacity of 2.9 MW at Biana in Karnal district and Marupur in Yamunanagar district. In the same month, the Public Health Engineering Department of Jaipur invited bids for 61 solar borewell water pumps to be installed in various villages of Jaipur. In June 2019, the public health engineering department of Udaipur issued a tender for the installation of 300 solar-based borewell water pumps across various villages and towns. The biggest tender was floated by Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) in August 2019, for 175,000 offgrid solar water pumps under the Offgrid and Decentralised Solar PV Application Programme. EESL also helped the International Solar Alliance (ISA) by issuing a tender to procure 272,579 solar water pumps for ISA member countries.

Some state governments are also streamlining the regulatory and policy scenario for better uptake of solar pumps. For instance, the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission issued an order in March 2019 stating that the power generated by offgrid solar water pumps will be counted towards meeting the renewable purchase obligation of Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited. The Madhya Pradesh government was planning to charge only 10-15 per cent of the total cost of the solar pump from farmers as the state believed that the existing incentive structure under KUSUM did not make a solar pump cheaper than an electric pump.

Solar heating systems at a hostel of Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune

Solar street lights

Another key highlight of the year 2019 was the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) receiving approval to launch Phase II of the Atal Jyoti Yojana and receiving Rs 500 million from the Ministry of Finance to meet the pending liabilities of Phase I of the programme. Under Phase I, solar LED street lights were installed in the rural, semi-urban and urban areas with less than 50 per cent grid connectivity in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. Under Phase II, 304,500 solar street lights are to be installed in the states mentioned in Phase I and additional states including Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep and 48 of the aspirational districts defined by NITI Aayog. The MNRE will bear 75 per cent of the total cost of the solar street lights (which is estimated at Rs 25,000). The remaining 25 per cent will come from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme fund, earmarked for each constituency.

At the state level, in October 2019, the Uttar Pradesh New and Renewable Energy Development Agency issued a tender for 2,100 solar street lights and 800 solar high mast lighting systems. Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited also floated a tender for solar-powered home and street lighting systems to be set up in H. Kodihalli village of Mandya district. In July 2019, the Jharkhand Renewable Energy Development Agency issued a tender for setting up 11,000 LED solar street lights across the state at a cost of Rs 175.56 million. In the same month, REIL Limited issued a tender for 20,000 offgrid solar LED street lights. The Karnataka government invited bids for solar-powered lights and fans to be installed at 900 anganwadi buildings across the state.

Solar lamps

Unlike other offgrid solar segments, the solar lamp segment has taken a lead through initiatives by civil society and not merely by demand aggregation through centre- and state-level tenders. A key initiative that everyone talked about on social media last year was the Gandhi Global Solar Yatra undertaken by Dr Solanki, a professor at IIT Bombay. Dr Solanki travelled the world to spread awareness about solar lamps and even taught students how to make one. Post his travel, a Students Solar Ambassador Workshop was organised on October 2, 2019, where more than a million students were trained to assemble solar lamps.

Meanwhile, under the government’s 70 Lakh Solar Study Lamp Scheme, the distribution of solar study lamps to students at a highly subsidised rate of Rs 100 continued. There were reports that over a million such study lamps would be distributed across the Northeast to achieve the target.

Solar thermal 

In the solar cooking space the biggest development took place in October 2019, when Solar Energy Corporation of India floated a tender for the installation of 500 solar home cooking systems in five districts across Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. In the solar heating space, concerted efforts are being made to allow third-party inspections by experts and to make sure that pending inspections are carried out from time to time. No big installation tender by any large commercial and industrial consumer has been reported. The issue of high cost and lack of experience of developers still looms large. However, residential consumers in urban areas have started showing interest in offgrid solar heating systems vis-à-vis grid-connected rooftop solar projects.

The way forward

The promotion of all these segments in the country through various policies, programmes and citizen-level participation is a big positive. However, as all these segments are in a nascent stage, the focus is on the disbursement of huge amounts of subsidies, donations and fundraising to increase uptake. To reduce the dependence on subsidies, policymakers can start working to develop a strong manufacturing base and vendor availability in the country to drive down the costs of offgrid applications and also undertake large-scale awareness campaigns. The promotion of decentralised solar applications will continue on account of targets set by the government. To achieve universal electricity access and realise the full potential of the offgrid segment, there should be an equal focus on promoting mini-hydel, micro wind turbines and biomass gasifiers.

By Sarthak Takyar

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