When I was a kid growing up in the sleepy (at that time!) little town of Palakkad, my teacher once asked me to make a solar cooker. And so I started... scrounging for a suitable box, pestering Dad to buy glass, painting the cooker black to prevent heat loss. I did a lot of work on that cooker. Funnily enough, it never really worked! But have a heart, I was just 8. And you see it was the monsoon season. In Palakkad the rains can be wicked.
So when recently I read of Oommen Chandy's 'cunning plan' to set up solar electricity generation stations, the first one in Palakkad, I was mildly sceptical. A Korean company has already agreed to set up the first 30MW plant in Palakkad district in 6 months time. Like many Kerala government initiatives, I suspect this will turn out to be a dud.
To be fair, a study by Ramachandra et al (2011) does say that Kerala receives an average sunshine above 5 kWh/m2/day, which is the minimum required for feasible solar generation units. However, a deeper look at the statistics shows the average insolation is barely above that minimum requirement. Just 5.30 kWh/m2/day. There is a spike in insolation from January to May, but that's about it.
Commercially available solar power panels are fickle creatures. On an average they convert just about 20 per cent of the irradiation they receive into electricity. Two factors mainly affect their performance -
1) Irradiation received
2) Spectral distribution of sunlight
I am no expert. But logic dictates that with such long months of low sunlight and monsoon clouds bound to affect spectral distribution of light, solar cells may not generate enough electricity to justify the set up cost. Commercially used solar panels do experience reduced conversion efficiencies in cloudy weather, often as low as 40per cent.
The next problem is land. To generate 1 MW electricity using solar power, you require at least 5 acres of land. It's simple arithmetic. A 30 MW project would need 150 acres. The total 330 MW target would require a whopping 1650 acres. Figures show Kerala has one of the lowest amounts of barren/uncultivable land in India. 25000 hectares, or 1 per cent of total land.
Kerala has banned use of cultivable land for residential or commercial purposes. But it's quite likely that there will always be those willing to bend the rules for a profit. Land sharks are a major menace in Kerala, and even the High Court has had to step in. It is quite evident that when the Korean company starts setting up, it could be the paddy fields of Palakkad which would be threatened.
Setting up private solar power generation units may end up a recipe for disaster.
But by no means am I against the use of renewable energy sources. Solar power is a good idea, but bad policy and regulation would see it become ineffective. To be fair, Kerala government has already revealed it will put up a comprehensive Solar Power Policy soon. State Minister Aryadan Muhammad has also announced plans to subsidise solar power for 10,000 homes under the National Solar Mission. But these measures may be a little too late in the day to really pack the fillip Kerala needs in power generation. It is estimated that the state's power requirement will shoot to 6500 MW by 2022.
Considering the limitations of setting up large scale projects, the state government should instead popularise solar energy generation among the populace. With that aim in mind, the following measures could prove invaluable.
One - Grid Connected Solar Power Generation
Per capita power consumption in Kerala is about 600 kWh per year. One of the lowest in the country. So, the proposal to subsidise 1kWh generating units per household is laudable. This would go a long way in adding additional generation capacity to the state. However, the proposal does not envisage linking these power generation units to existing grids. In essence, these will merely operate as solar powered power backup systems for homes. This is could lead to a potential wastage of generated power. An alternate model should be a grid-connected system where the solar cells installed on rooftops feed into the grid. As shown in experiments abroad, these would help in more efficient usage of electricity.
A grid connected system, would help redistribute excess power generated. For that to work though, an array of solar panels are required as opposed to individual ones operating independently. A viable proposal would be set up community based solar power generation units at village level in rural areas. For example, a village with 100 homes could help generate 100 kWh of electricity, redistributing excess power either to the state electricity grid, or locally channelling excess for other uses like powering agricultural equipment, street lights etc.
Two - Pay the Difference
A 1 kWh power generation unit costs approximately Rs 2.5 lakhs, of which central and state financial assistance amount to around Rs 1.2 lakhs. Under the current proposal, any interested person would have to shell out over Rs 1.3 lakhs from his own pocket to set up a power generation system in his home. The prohibitive cost is bound to discourage interest in the new scheme.
An alternative would be for the state government/panchayats to implement a Feed-In Tariff system. Abroad, especially in UK and Australia, private home owners with solar power generation units connected to the grid are paid for excess capacity generated by them. This would be a return on their initial investment to set up the infrastructure.
In Kerala, the government or local bodies could, however, own the generation units themselves, but lease them to willing consumers for nominal fees. In a grid connected system, it would be a simple matter to calculate the amount of power generated and power consumed by these households using meters. For one, a household that generates say 100 kWh electricity and consumes 200 kWh, could benefit by paying only for the difference. In case a household generates more electricity than it consumes, the government could choose to pay back the consumers a nominal fee as remuneration for the use of space. This would encourage more consumers to opt-in as it would be a means of either revenue generation or cost-cutting.
Three - Light the Way
Take a drive on any road in Kerala, and one of the biggest problems you will face is the lack of adequate street lighting. It has become quite common in many states to use solar powered street lights and traffic signals. Expedited installation of such systems in the state would help cut consumption of power by public conveniences.
But it has to be acknowledged that setting up such solar powered lighting facilities may be cost prohibitive. Instead, the state government should seriously consider encouraging large commercial buildings to set up solar arrays on their roof tops and feed in power generated to street lights in their areas. In fact, the government may choose to make this a mandatory requirement for large commercial buildings, just as rainwater harvesting facilities were made mandatory. A grid-connected system could preclude the need for individual power backups to store generated power. A feed-in tariff model would work admirably in this case too.
Kerala government has taken the right step in identifying the overarching need for reliance on alternate energy sources. Solar energy can be a cheap and viable form or power generation, except for its prohibitive initial costs. Instead of relying on private power companies to generate electricity, it might be in the state's interest to encourage power generation at the local level, through community based schemes or by rewarding consumers to contribute to generation. Monsoon could still cloud power generation prospects. But perhaps it's smarter to scatter power generation units across the entire state than to rely on arrays concentrated only in certain areas.