03 Jan 2017 16:15 IST

Investing in Solar Bharat Abhiyan!

India needs to exploit the vast amount of solar energy that it gets

US Presidents are often remembered for setting extremely ambitious goals for the country and corralling support by directly making their cases to the American people. Such moves have not only benefited the US but the world at large.

History speaks

It was President John F Kennedy who first issued a challenge to the scientific community to beat the Soviet Union in the space race and send a man to the moon. JFK, unfortunately, never lived to see his ambitious goal come to fruition. He was assassinated nearly six years before one of 20 th century’s most important scientific accomplishments — when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

President Richard Nixon declared his famous “War on Cancer” to improve the understanding of cancer biology and the development of more effective treatments. Today, the US National Cancer Institute, created in 1971, is the world’s premier hub for all research related to this dreaded disease. It has helped save millions of lives.

More recently, President Obama, in his single most important domestic achievement, challenged the US to invest in wind and solar energy. He committed billions of dollars to subsidise the installation of solar rooftops and commercial grade solar farms. In 2016, the US generated nearly 1.27 per cent of its total electricity needs via solar energy — a remarkably significant number given the 51 terawatt hours of energy it produced. It meant that the US did not consume nearly 30 million barrels of oil, had the energy been sourced from oil-based generating plants.

A new abhiyan

Prime Minister Modi, who, for the first time in India’s history, converted a relatively dull parliamentary election into a US-presidential-style race (where the outcome was largely decided by the charm of the leader than the promise of a party’s platform), has already invested his vast political capital for major initiatives such as “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Mission)” and demonetisation. Both of these have required major contributions (and sacrifices) by citizens, and have proved that government policies do not always have to be dull, top-down orders requiring people to comply.

His next call to Indians could be to undertake a massive investment in rooftop solar energy — a new abhiyan to exploit the abundance of sunshine that Mother Nature has bestowed upon us. Some parts of the country (Rajasthan, Gujarat, UP, MP, West Bengal and Bihar) are so dry that with the earth’s tilt, they could generate plenty of solar-based electric power for up to 12 hours a day. This electricity could not only be used to power local villages but also be exported to neighbouring States and the big cities nearby.

Untapped sources

To be sure, the Prime Minister is already spearheading important solar investments in both public and public-private-partnership spaces. He has aggressively pursued a goal of 100 GW from solar by 2022. (This compares to about 32 GW of total solar capacity already installed in the US, that produced enough electricity to power 6.2 million homes). Of specific mention is his leadership in the UN-backed International Solar Alliance , which was co-launched by India and France to boost solar energy in developing countries.

Left untapped, however, are the vast domestic rooftops of India’s large open spaces — and a drive to get ordinary citizens involved. The potential of local solar farms that can generate enough energy to power the basic needs of a small community is brilliantly captured in a recent National Geographic documentary featuring David Letterman, a well-recognised American comedian. In the film, Letterman visits a few villages in UP, where local entrepreneur Anil Raj (CEO of OMC), has set up small solar farms to power homes, generating enough energy to light up a single bulb for children to study at night.

Make the meter run backwards

Imagine a massive investment in rooftop solar panels in Delhi. Today, electricity in the National Capital Region is so unreliable that many rooftops over commercial establishments sport expensive backup diesel generating units instead. Diesel consumption takes the country in the opposite direction by increasing our oil import bill and lowering foreign exchange reserves, and worse, adding to the already dangerous levels of pollution in the area.

A new rooftop solar abhiyan could direct government incentives to citizens to generate electricity for residential consumption. This would result in ordinary homes adding to the power grid by making “meters run backwards”, lowering their monthly electric bills while also lowering the burden on strapped utilities.

Similar incentives from the US government resulted in a nearly 1,000 per cent increase in residential solar capacity during the eight years of the Obama administration — from about 250 MW in 2008 to nearly 2,250 MW in 2015. Government subsidies helped create so much demand that manufacturers increased supply to meet it. Soon, there was so much supply that the cost of solar panel installation fell over 50 per cent during this period, leading the industry to expand into new markets and deploy hundreds of thousands of systems nationwide.

India needs to exploit the vast amount of solar energy that it gets. We have the technical and financial know-how to do this. All we need is the political will to make it happen.