A Shining Example: Sanchi becomes India’s first solar city

By Sanjay Dubey, Principal Secretary, Energy and New and Renewable Energy Department, Government of Madhya Pradesh

Sanchi, a heritage site located in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh and an internationally renowned tourist destination, is soon to become India’s first solar city. It is positioned as the perfect destination to hallmark India’s clean and green energy campaign. A “solar city” is a city where most of the energy demands (individual and community) such as electricity, heat applications, lanterns and streetlights are fulfilled using solar energy sources. Sanchi is renowned for housing the ancient Buddhist Great Stupa which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the Hindu temple complex built during the Gupta dynasty. Developing Sanchi as India’s first solar city would be an additional feather in the state’s cap.

The initiative would represent a special accomplishment for Madhya Pradesh in the renewable energy sector. The state has already garnered the attention of the entire country, giving it a new identity in this rapidly growing sector. It would impact all dimensions that influence the local population, such as psychological, social, cultural, economic, political, religious and environmental aspects. Hence, it is necessary to exercise caution in selecting a suitable approach for achieving this objective, facilitating the emergence of a sustainable model. This may include sufficient and fallow/barren areas used for solar energy installations; ensuring reliable, affordable and high-quality power; minimal displacement of humans and biodiversity; and preventing any economic losses to stakeholders. Overall, this presents an excellent opportunity for Madhya Pradesh and India as a whole to move forward in the journey to achieve ambitious renewable energy installation targets (500 GW by 2030) and meet the country’s long-term net zero emissions by 2070.

As per the latest Madhya Pradesh Renewable Energy Policy – 2022, the New and Renewable Energy Department (NRED), Government of Madhya Pradesh, has envisaged a new initiative to transform the state’s various heritage sites and tourist destinations into green cities. Madhya Pradesh Urja Vikas Nigam (MPUVN), the nodal agency under NRED for implementing this initiative, has earmarked the development of Sanchi as Madhya Pradesh’s first green city or solar city. Several transformational initiatives have been conceptualised by MPUVN for the development of the first solar city. Some key interventions being implemented include meeting Sanchi’s power requirement through a MW-scale solar power plant, rooftop solar installations, solar street lights, solar trees with mobile charging and wi-fi facilities, solar drinking water kiosks, e-rickshaws, electric vehicle charging stations and wind turbines. Most of the electricity for Sanchi Solar City will be generated from solar energy in the surrounding rural areas, thereby making the city self-reliant in its power supply.

Harnessing solar energy to fulfil the energy demands of the city’s populace would have a psychological impact. The city’s residents would witness behavioural changes as the source, supply, quality and eco-friendly attributes of the supplied power would foster a stronger sense of connection to the environment. Further, any displacement of people and biodiversity due to land clearance for the solar power plant shall be addressed through proper awareness programmes, training, clarifications on the land clearance process and provision of proper compensation and rehabilitation if required.

The adoption of wide-scale eco-friendly solar energy technologies would have positive impacts on the health of individuals and the community as a whole. The absence of fossil fuel usage, no discharge of waste into water bodies and minimal to no air pollution would provide numerous health benefits. Further, a sustainable approach would be employed for the safe disposal of solar system components.

It is crucial for Sanchi’s residents to understand the concept of a solar city and make it part of the socialisation process through due acceptance and incorporation into societal rules and regulations. Influential stakeholders from the local society should be involved in the policy and planning process of the initiative to conceptualise and design acceptable interventions based on local needs. This would supplement the theory of cooperative federalism between the state, district and local authorities, leading to a win-win situation for all. Caution must be taken to ensure that naysayers, excessive energy utilisation and insensitivity towards the environment do not hamper the societal acceptance of the initiative.

In Indian culture, the sun holds significant reverence and is worshipped as an important deity. The transformation of Sanchi into a solar city would further cement the sun’s importance in the local culture. The heritage city would get an opportunity to reinforce its existing knowledge and imbibe new ones by understanding the potential applications, impacts and role of solar energy, and thus the sun, in our daily lives. This includes domestic applications such as power, water heating, cooking, drying and water purifiers, as well as community applications such as power, public lighting, street lighting, public Wi-Fi, mobile charging and kiosks.

Costs are inevitably incurred for the execution of any activity, whether small or big. The project’s feasibility can be evaluated through a benefit-cost analysis, comparing all potential benefits and costs associated with it. The transformation of Sanchi into a solar city involves various benefits and costs. The benefits include aspects such as low operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, long lifespan of solar technology, eco-friendliness, self-reliance on energy and employment generation. The costs may include high capital costs, risk of damage and theft of solar systems, substantial land and water requirements, and issues related to the reliability and quality of power. Overall, solar technology being eco-friendly and having very low O&M costs has proven to be a cost-effective alternative for conventional power supply sources.

Sanchi’s transition into a solar city will require the strengthening of local political leadership and a shift in the political agenda towards encouraging the adoption of renewable energy sources to meet various energy demands. Until the past decade, ignorance, inertia and unawareness, especially among political leadership at the local level, were primary factors that hindered the adoption of renewable energy sources. With the state Renewable Energy Policy – 2022 in place, which aims to develop various green/solar cities across the state, the stage is set to exponentially augment the integration of renewable energy sources into the daily life of all consumer groups. However, care must be taken to develop the initiative as a sustainable model. The solar city concept involves harnessing the maximum potential of solar energy, which is a fully environmentally friendly technology.

Environmental education related to governmental developmental projects or any other activities may prove to be beneficial in safeguarding the environment and adopting best practices. Thus, it will constitute an integral part of any government initiative where all the concerned stakeholders such as local authorities, individuals, communities and developers can be sensitised to adopt best practices concerning the environment and energy utilisation. Madhya Pradesh’s Urja Saksharta Abhiyan (UShA) is a great step in this direction, targeting energy literacy among the general public and all other stakeholders.

Disaster management, an important concept that emerged in recent decades, calls for better preparedness, mitigation, response and rehabilitation in the event of any natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones and floods, or manmade disasters such as industry hazards. The National Disaster Management Act, 2005, provides the legal and regulatory framework for disaster management in India. In the case of developing the Sanchi solar city, for instance, large-scale land clearance could potentially lead to long-term water logging/local floods. Proper measures should be put in place to mitigate such events. This would further assist in making this initiative a sustainable model.

Global forums and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, in collaboration with their member countries, are aligned in their efforts to collectively combat global issues like climate change, global warming, biodiversity loss, etc. Through various international treaties and agreements such as the Earth Summit 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol 1997 and the Paris Agreement 2015, it is clear that global issues are on top priority worldwide. Initiatives such as green or solar cities are perfectly in line with these international commitments, in which India is also a player.

Sanchi, the great Buddhist and historical heritage city, will become India’s first solar city, further augmenting its value and importance. It is a pioneering initiative by NRED and MPUVN under the new state Renewable Energy Policy – 2022, in line with the Indian government’s ambitious target of installing 500 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030 and a net zero emissions target by 2070. This aligns with international obligations aimed at combatting global issues such as climate change, global warming and environmental loss. It is a welcome step towards meeting targets, safeguarding the environment and conserving exhaustible natural resources. However, while implementing this initiative, it is important to exercise due consideration and caution to prevent any negative impacts. Overall, the Sanchi solar city initiative is a favourable and beneficial proposition. not only meeting the city’s energy requirements with reliable, affordable and high-quality power but also safeguarding the environment.