Solar: The answer to India’s long term power needs
Ms. Ratnottama Sengupta covers policies as a consultant in the Market Intelligence team at BRIDGE TO INDIA.
India is reeling under a power crisis as the northern grid failed for the second time in 48 hours, this time along with the eastern and north-eastern grids. As the Ministry of Power struggles to find a quick fix to restore power to 20 (out of 28) Indian states, we have to ask ourselves whether the country can rely on such erratic supply of power from the central grids.
- India’s power sector supplies inadequate and unstable power to the country, while the power demand is continuously on the rise
- India’s spotty track-record in building large scale infrastructure calls into question the entire concept of a centralized power infrastructure
- Solar is an increasingly attractive option for decentralized power supply to increase supply security and reduce power costs
As the nation is clamouring for explanations of such widespread failure of centralized power supply, the blame is settling on states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana which, according to a report by the National Load Dispatch Center (NLDC), have been overdrawing power from the grid. How can we avoid overburdening the grid again? Part of the answer is in implementing smart grids and timely load shedding. But while this provides a fragile solution for the immediate problems, staccato supply of power from the centralized grid is not the ultimate answer the country is looking for.
The predicament has to be answered at a more fundamental level. India still has 400 million people who are not grid connected. As coal imports go up due to shortage of domestic supply and oil prices have already risen by more than 40% this year, India must explore its untapped wealth of renewable sources of energy to overcome its structural power challenges. Solar power can play a key role in this: it is plentiful, locally available, can be harnessed by small plants in decentral locations and it is increasingly economical.
The challenge is, of course, the dispatchability or availability of solar power. This can be increased through the use of thermal storage in the case of CSP or through battery storage in the case of PV. It will still take some time for solar to provide viable 24h solutions. In the meantime, local solar solutions can complement grid power and diesel backup in such a way as to reduce the levelized cost of electricity and increase supply security. In the long term, the Indian power sector may be one of barely interlinked local and regional supply and demand areas. This will reverse the trend towards increasing centralization that we have seen in the last 20 or so years. The result may be a more stable, cheap and flexible power supply for India. The only shame is, that it will come about as a result of government failure rather than planning. It will be driven by the private sector and its unfilfilled power needs.