August 21, 2010

Solar India

Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission - branded as Solar India is beyond any one's expectation. I believe it is for the first time any country has voluntarily decided to put serious efforts in order to promote the use of Solar Power. An effort that is extremely calculated, transparent and at the same time very lucrative for private participation. It is a mission promoted by a very capable team doing the right job at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and its associated organizations.

After attending many seminars, meetings, client interactions, workshops etc in the past 8 months since the launch of the mission one aspect that truly stands out is the seriousness of all the stake holders of JNNSM including the government and the private sector.

However, at this junction of time when there is a mad rush of proponents, the atmospehere is extremely competitive. Due to this competition. there is a disconnect that I observe. A disconnect between finance and technology. This I believe is rooted in the basic Indian Philosophy of trying to reduce costs to the maximum. I foresee some real problems that can arise out of the lifetime of the power plants constructed in the first phase of the Mission.

Having spent almost 3 years in photovoltaics, I am well aware of the various hazards that can happen at site on the photovlatic power plant over its operating life. The risk of hazards is mostly related to the poor quality material and poor installation practices. The Mission does take care of minimizing the poor quality material, however, cannot eliminate it completely. Poor installation practices must be avoided by the project developer by bringing in good expertise to compete the project. The project developers need to understand that it is not possible to create a good power plant by just sub contracting all the activities directly without the help of a EPC contractor who is well aware of the best practices of building a solar power plant. It is in the interest of the developer itself to spend that extra buck and make things right in the first place to avoid mammoth maintenance costs that can be incurred. If my experience can be generalized, Indian project developers have yet not evolved out of the age old philosophy of "Do It Yourself" and save that extra buck initially. I do agree that the awareness is increasing, however, a decent percentage of developers will pay the cost of Ignorance over the operating lifetime of the power plant.

The high disparity between the GBI's of the different states is just adding fuel to the fire. It is an additional reason that is giving an impetus to even more cost cutting. There will be significant difference in the rate of return for a power plant is Gujarat and that in Maharashtra due to the difference of close to Rs 2.5 per unit in the Feed In Tariffs of the respective states. The NVVN scheme of reverse auction is also a source of frustration among the smaller project developers and will also encourage the cost cutting measures to go down by that extra paisa per unit to get the project through.

The hazards of an improperly designed/ built solar power plant are significant and cause sever loss to the equipment leading to loss of revenue as well as cost to rebuild. In the process, there can be a situation where one might lose their interests in pursuing with the operation of the power plant. There are many failed solar power installations around the world and the project developers need to keep it in mind.

Few of the problems in power plant operation could be:

1. Reduction in the energy output to the grid
2. Frequent shut down of Inverters

3. Development of heat spots in the modules, burning of modules, Junction boxes, cables etc
4. Excessive losses in the power plant
5. Equipment failure

and many more....

I truly wish that all the PV power plants installed in the first phase of the Mission are built and operated hassle free for their whole life time of 25 years. However, the project developer needs to be aware of the harsh realities of solar power.

As I end my blog, I would like to quote Dr Farooq Abdullah's (Honourable Minister, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Gov. of India) statement at the Inauguration of Solarcon 2010 in Hyderabad, "महंगा रोये एक बार,  सस्ता रोये बार बार". I truly appreciate Dr Abdullah's efforts to bring in the best in the country, but it still remains a test of the commitment of the  private sector. In this highly competitive environment will they bring in the best or the cheapest. I hope it is not the latter as it will just make a mockery out of the most ambitious mission for the promotion of solar energy on the world stage.

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