26 June 2015 15:41:10 IST

Losing a roof to gain power

Tax gains, cheap finance and local distribution make rooftop solar plants a compelling proposition

A major phenomenon threatens to sweep across India — the roofs are all going to go. This may sound alarming but it is not really a bad thing. It will certainly make a difference. A very visible, big difference to the way we consume power.

As children, many of us used to play rubber-ball cricket on the roofs. Almost all of us have used the terraces of our buildings to fly kites from, build bird-baths, hold gossip meetings or, when in distress, simply sulk in silence. None of these is going to be possible in future.

All the roof space (at least, most of it) is going to be taken up by solar panels. From now onwards, it is going to be very difficult to see a new house being built without rooftop solar being part of the design.

We have to take it in our stride in the spirit that ‘the old order changeth, yielding place to new’. Who can fight against the inexorable, compelling logic of rooftop solar?

Free power

It is, and has always been, so absurdly simple. You need electricity. You put up a few solar modules on your roof and draw a wire from them to power your lights, fans and computers — and you’re good to go on clean, free electricity, right?

This has not happened so far, mainly because the cost of putting up a solar plant on the roof has been so high as to take away the advantages of free power.

When it comes to solar rooftop plants — let’s call them SRTP — there are three market segments: private residences, commercial establishments like hotels, shopping malls and office complexes, and industrial establishments or factories.

Putting up an SRTP on a building’s rooftop has had some issues, apart from the cost of the plant itself. The SRTP will produce electricity when the sun shines. What would you do at night? You can store the day power in a battery but that, again, adds to the costs, and you need to find more space for the battery, spend on its maintenance and replacement, and so on. So, not many people put up SRTPs on their roofs, and the roofs were, thankfully, available for cricket or kite-flying.

Sweeping change

The commercial establishments pay a higher price for electricity, so perhaps SRTPs would make sense for them. However, they too have had problems. Many of them need their roofs for other purposes — like putting up a rooftop cafeteria, or keeping their a/c outdoor units. Also, what would they do if they wanted to build another floor?

The factories typically have large roofs and they also pay higher tariffs for the electricity that the grid supplies. They have been early adopters of SRTPs in India. So have educational institutions — if your college does not have a SRTP, please demand one.

Now, by the looks of it, things are going to change drastically, not in the least because the government is keen on giving rooftop solar a big push. It wants to see 40,000 MW of SRTP capacity built across the country by 2022. That is a mind-boggling figure — 40,000 MW of SRTPs require thousands and thousands of roofs. To illustrate, a couple of years back, the government had given out this data point: 13.25 MW of capacity was built on 15,870 roofs.

To make 40,000 MW of SRTP possible, the government has a few tricks up its sleeve. First is to let housing loans also cover SRTPs. Another is to give tax breaks for those who put up the plants. Today, if you borrow money to build a house, all the interest you pay the housing finance company is deducted from your income and you pay tax only on the rest of the income — a huge tax benefit.

Tax exemption

A similar treatment is being worked out for SRTPs — the cost of the SRTP could be deducted from your income and you don’t have to pay tax on that part of the income. This will make SRTPs on home roofs viable.

On the other side, solar costs are coming down. The cost of modules, which used to be upwards of $1 a watt in 2008-09, is now down to half of it, and the trajectory takes us to 35 cents a watt in the next few years. Concurrently, the State governments have no option to raise the prices of the electricity they sell. With solar costs coming down, and grid power costs going up, the meeting point — better known as ‘grid parity’ — will soon be reached. With tax benefits and cheaper finance, SRTPs will be a compelling proposition.

Rent a roof

Alongside, another concept is taking root. It is called ‘rent a roof’. If you have a roof and you don’t want to put up a SRTP, there will be third parties – solar companies – who will rent the roof from you and build SRTPs with their own money. They could sell the electricity to anybody, including you. What you pay is the cost of electricity you buy from them minus the rent they pay you. This ‘experiment’, which first began in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister there, is now happening in 10 Indian cities, on a small scale.

A big positive with SRTPs is that they are ‘decentralised distribution systems’, which means the power they produce are consumed right in the locality —completely avoiding transmission costs. That is why we should not grudge the loss of roofs.

However, you must note that not all roofs are ‘solar-able’. The neighbouring buildings or trees should not cast their shadows on the solar panels and the buildings should be strong enough to take the additional loads. Thus, perhaps, even with the Great Indian Rooftop Movement, some roofs will be spared.

The old order changeth, leaving space for few, what?