India to Embark on Ambitious Solar Energy Program

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India is not short of coal from which most of it’s electricity is generated. But it does have to import 70% of it’s crude oil and half its natural gas according to an article in the Times newspaper. Some 400 million Indians are without electricity and cities face daily blackouts which is a major impediment to economic development. India has the capacity to produce 150GW of electricity less than a fifth of China’s and demand outstripped supply by 9.5% between 2008-09, and by 13.8% during peak hours, according to the official figures. The plan is to produce 20 GW (20 billion watts) by 2020 from zero today, 100GW by 2030 and 200GW by 2050.  To put this in context at present the entire world can generate about 14GW of solar power. The plan calls for all government buildings to have solar panels by 2012 and to provide micro financing sufficient to install solar lighting in 20 million homes by 2020. If even a tenth of this is achieved it represents major business opportunities for suppliers of materials and components.

As in the UK, available sites for land based wind farms are believed to be insufficient for wind power to make a significant impact into total energy generation. So for a country that enjoys on average 300 days of sunshine a year, solar has a lot to commend it. The biggest challenge though is cost, particularly for a relatively impoverished developing country such as India too often seduced by pointless investments in space exploration rather than developments that will bring tangible benefits to its people. Solar power in India currently costs about 15 rupees ($35c) per kWh, compared with an average 3.5 rupees per kWh for electricity from the national grid, which is largely produced by coal-fired thermal power plants. Part of the program is aimed at developing technologies to bring the costs down but the numbers do raise the question until such time as technology and mass production bring costs more into line how much progress will solar power production make as part of the national grid? Providing solar electricity for villages not connected to the grid makes good sense but has no impact on reducing existing demand on the overloaded and under invested system. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s fine words translate into real action or remain stubbornly a pipe dream.

–Stuart Burns

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