Why India’s Canals Could Help Fast-Forward Its Solar-Energy Plans

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As far as the eye can see, line after line of solar panels stretch out in the midday sun beating down on the village of Chandrasan here in this eastern Gujarat district, which squeezes in 80 more people per sq km than India’s already crowded average of 441 people per sq km.

But there is no land conflict involved with the Chandrasan installation because the solar panels unfurl over a 750 m length of irrigation canal.

The canal-top solar panels were installed in India’s sunnies state in 2012 and now offer hope for a country three times as densely populated as China, at a time when India aims for almost a nine-fold increase in solar capacity between between 2017 and 2022 to fulfil global climate-change commitments and reduce its dependence on coal-fired power plants.

 The canal-top idea was first tabled at a 2011 Vibrant Gujarat Summit by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, said Bela Jani, a spokesperson at state-owned Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited (GSECL). The aim was to utilise the area above the canals, saving the government the cost, time and inconvenience associated with land acquisition.

Gujarat alone has a canal network of 80,000 km. Using even 30% of this network for  canal-top solar projects, according to GSECL estimates, 18,000 MW of power could be produced in just Gujarat–almost equal to the current coal-based installed capacity of Delhi, Rajasthan and Telangana–and 90,000 acres of land, or twice the size of Kolkata, could be saved.

In other words, installing solar-panels over 30% of Gujarat’s canals could be used to meet nearly a fifth of India’s solar power targets by 2022.Currently, about 100 MW of solar installations atop and besides canals are either approved or under construction in eight Indian states. Government subsidies are limited to public-sector companies that own canals or canal banks, but, if successful, private-sector involvement is inevitable.

Solar power is important to India’s future electricity needs

Coal generates over 75% of India’s electricity and is among the cheapest energy sources available, IndiaSpend reported in May 2015.

With over 300 million Indians without reliable energy, and industrial demand growing, the need for coal-fired electricity is estimated to increase three times by 2030, with consequent environmental impacts.

But in talking about what he calls the “seven horses of energy”–coal, nuclear, hydro, gas, solar, wind and biogas–Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that India’s efforts should increasingly move towards the latter three.

The real potential in a sunny country to replace fossil fuels is solar: India has a renewable-energy potential of about 895 GW, of which 750 GW is solar, as IndiaSpend reported in February 2015.

By 2022, solar energy could achieve grid-parity in India, meaning it would cost the same as other sources of electricity–although some reports suggest this might happen by 2018. That is the year, as another IndiaSpend report said, renewable-energy sector, primarily solar, could generate 1 million jobs–over 400,000 already exist, according to a 2016 status report by Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, a global, multi-stakeholder network based out of Paris.

Solar power plants can be built faster than either coal, gas or nuclear power plants. Further, in the decade ending 2014, solar installed capacity went up from 2.6 GW to 139 GW, a jump of 50 times over the initial capacity in just ten years, largely because of falling costs and improving solar-cell technology.

The critical issue around solar installations in India is space, as IndiaSpend reported in May 2015. That is where the nation’s canals come in.

Canal-top solar power is most efficient, has longer life and saves water

The power output of ground-mounted solar panels decreases at a rate of 1% every year for the first 10 years. However, panels mounted on Chandrasan’s canal showed no degradation and power generated stayed stable over the past three years, according to research conducted by the Gujarat Energy Research and Management Institute (GERMI), a research institution promoted by the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation Ltd, which is a Govt of India undertaking.

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