Solar panels: hot stuff in India

Indian businesses seek solace in self-managed solar plants

In light of ongoing widespread power cuts and government-authorised power holidays across India, some companies have taken to building their own solar plants in order to have access to a guaranteed power supply.

One such firm, IT company ValueLabs based in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, recently completed the building of a 13-megawatt solar plant in order to keep its office running for the 3,000 employees working there. The company is also able to sell surplus electricity back to the national grid.

"We plan to use the entire quantum of power generated from these plants in the coming years for our existing and upcoming campus," said Krishna Reddy, a senior ValueLabs executive. "We want to ensure we are free from power disruptions in the future."

Across India, factories and businesses have installed over 30 megawatts of rooftop solar panels in the last year according to data compiled by New Delhi-based consultancy Bridge to India. Demand may accelerate further under Prime Minister Narenda Modi, who has made renewable energy a priority in a drive to wean the country off its dependence on coal and oil and fulfil Modi's election pledge of bringing reliable power to all citizens.

In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, the country’s second-largest IT exporter Infosys Ltd is building a 50-megawatt solar plant to meet 30 per cent of the company's power needs. The Bridge to India report estimates that commercial rooftop and smaller utility plants have the potential to provide up to 83,000 megawatts of solar energy, more than half of India’s potential solar capacity from now to the year 2024.

"With the new government coming in, we see a clear intent to further increase allocation of solar in the energy mix," said Sujoy Ghosh, India’s head of the US-based company First Solar. Foreign panel suppliers are expecting to profit from rising demand in India, as the falling price of solar panels is making new installations more attractive.

States in the arid north and west are building big solar plants at the fastest pace, though smaller commercial projects are cropping up across the country, where nearly all states enjoy year-round sunshine.

While India’s overall installed capacity has risen by 20 per cent in the past three years and peak-hour shortfalls have eased, not enough power reaches end-users due to rickety transmission lines. When it does, the supply can be unreliable. Even major cities experience regular blackouts, such as the 24-hour blackout that struck Bangladesh recently (as reported by E&T). Many southern states enforce power cuts to keep a check on demand. Across the country, businesses are typically obliged to buy expensive back-up generators to guard against power outages.

For companies that rely on a constant power supply, the economic arguments for solar power are thus entirely straightforward. Infosys says its own solar-generated power will cost it less than the 6.15 rupees per unit it pays for electricity from the grid, even after factoring in depreciation expenses.

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