Author: Nivedita Khandekar
India places huge bets on solar power, which will not just fulfill its environmental obligation towards United Nation’s climate change agenda but will also contribute towards increased job availability in the sector.
Rinchin Choton of Thumbra village, deep inside the Tawang district of the Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh is no ordinary youngster. I met her during my recent travel to the state, which perennially battles power shortage. The young school-dropout girl daily uses a small PV panel to charge her mobile and an emergency lamp.
Despite hundreds of problems vis-à-vis accessibility and availability, Choton chose her option wisely. The cold place, at an altitude of almost 7,000 feet, receives very less rain and gets bright sunshine for most months of the year. Delhi receives intense sunlight for most months of a year barring a few days of showers spread over three months of monsoon. But how many literate, highly educated youngster Delhiites – hooked to Temple Runs and Pokemon Gos – use solar energy to recharge their mobile phones?
Perhaps, you know the answer. That is why I call Choton an extraordinary young girl. Choton embodies the model citizen that the government of India envisages as it hopes to tap the vast solar potential in our sunbaked country.
India’s energy matrix saw rejig with the upping of solar power targets and less emphasis on conventional polluting energy that goes on to damage the environment. India has placed huge bets on solar power, which will not just fulfill its environmental obligation towards United Nation’s climate change agenda by reducing emission of polluting gases but will also contribute towards increased job availability in the sector, fueling growth in remote areas, as far flung as Ladakh or for that matter Rann of Kutch.
In its action plan to combat climate change – the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – submitted to the UN, India has promised to increase its renewable energy target to a massive 175 GW, of which solar energy is expected to rise to 100 GW by year 2022. Of this, as much as 40 GW is slated for rooftop solar.
As per government records, the total installed capacity for solar power till May 2016 is 7564 MW and the target for current year is 10,500 MW for grid connected solar power. After assuming power two years ago, the government had also announced setting up of ‘Solar Parks’ and sanctioned 34 of them with an aggregating capacity of 20,000 MW in 21 states, including the Andhra Pradesh’s 1500 MW capacity unit, the largest such project in the world.
The best part is, apart from private players and the designated agencies to carry out the task to enhance solar power generation, it is the other arms of the government that are making major inroads into solar power productions. Kochi Airport was the first airport to go all solar in 2015. Other airports, Delhi metro, Indian railways and if not all state government buildings, but definitely central government buildings built by CPWD and solar-powered toll plazas – all these and many more are already functional or in the pipeline.
Solar Power: Driver for Social Transformation
Going beyond, rather than looking at these development as just ‘energy sector phenomenon’, the need is to look at solar power as a driver for social transformation, especially when it comes to off grid places/villages. Definitely, several States have come up with policies that suit the ‘Solar First’ requirement, however, they must ensure that implementation of such policies is effective.
Maharashtra government in January this year cleared a ‘solar off grid policy’ aiming to save at least 500 MW in the next five years. As part of this policy, urban civic bodies and municipal authorities have been directed to change development control (DC) norms so as to ensure construction permission are given to only those buildings that take up solar water heater panels. All buildings in government colonies, tribal schools and even new private buildings will compulsorily need to follow the directives.
Solar panel used to charge emergency lamp and mobile by Rinchin Choton from Thumbra village in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh
With ample fluid currency, scores of private units have already turned to solar. Imagine the kind of changes power availability can bring in places far from the state capital. But when it comes to places really off grid, in physical terms, such as Sironcha, a small town in eastern Maharashtra, the story is no different than Choton’s Arunachal Pradesh.
The Arunachal Pradesh Energy Development Agency (APEDA) has already initiated a process since April 2016 for ‘design, supply, installation, testing and commissioning with five years comprehensive warranty and maintenance of 300 Wp Solar Power Packs’ for Rural Electrification of 1058 off-grid villages. Already, people in far flung villages in the remote hills in Arunachal Pradesh have started opting for solar PV panels, several institutions, especially residential schools, have started using solar water heater panels while solar-powered streetlights have become a fairly common thing across the state.
Solar PV panel and solar water heater at the 400 year old Tawang Monastery in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
The problem common to both – two states as extreme examples – is: even as private and government efforts are directed much towards introduction and/or installation of solar power in any form, the initial enthusiasm is not sustained in the long term just because there are not adequate post-sale services offered for remote locations.
Scores of schools that went in for solar water heater faced problems such as lack of spare parts and absence of repair person to take care of the damage afflicting the equipment. In fact, this can be turned into a ‘Skill India’ opportunity whereby youth are trained to install and later maintain the solar equipment in remote areas too.
One more thing that needs to be taken care of is proper implementation of ‘SuryaMitra’ app which promises immediate solutions to the consumer for installation, service or repair for solar installations. While this can be a really handy tool in urban and semi-urban areas that have seen proliferation of smart phones, the same cannot just be applicable for really remote areas which have poor or no mobile signal and also lack the capacity to comprehend usage of Apps.
Such last mile issues for those really off grid – in physical and allegorical sense – will actually ensure the success of solar power as a tool for social transformation.
*Nivedita Khandekar is a Delhi-based independent journalist. She writes on environmental, developmental and climate change issues.