Solar Power will not ‘kill’ thermal; here’s why

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Today, climate change is the most serious threat with visible adverse impacts on human health, food-security, water and other natural resources. It is a major challenge for India with our vast agrarian population, the expansive coastal areas and the fragile Himalayan region and islands.

Given the huge technological and financial needs in climate mitigation and adaptation, India could have simply trumpeted this ‘inconvenient truth’ and hid behind our low per capita emissions. Contrary to the unfortunate and sweeping conclusion made by the naysayers, that the rapid growth of solar power in India will threaten thermal power projects and the banks providing debt capital to such projects, India chose to adopt a climate-friendly and cleaner development path than the one followed by the rich nations.

Energy is a vital input for production and growth. Hence, India has undertaken a two-pronged approach to reduce energy demand and to minimise carbon emissions in power generation. Thus, we have undertaken rapid strides in energy efficiency mission, universalisation of LEDs and stiff energy norms in industrial and buildings sectors for energy-efficient growth. We have focused on expanding public transport and on fast transition to clean fuel norms in transport sector.

Simultaneously, renewable energy (RE) is central to such cleaner path for reducing emissions. Thus, our Nationally Determined Contributions stress on achieving 40% of generation capacity through non-fossil sources. Our focus on RE also stems from our desire to ensure energy access to far-flung villages and homes where the grid simply can’t reach. Further, with our high level of energy imports, such RE focus is critical for ensuring energy security.

We launched the Solar Mission in 2010. We massively upscaled our RE targets in 2015. Our solar base has grown four times in past three years to 12.3 gigwatts (GW) compared to our total installed generation capacity of about 319 GW. The solar power installed base is only 3.8%.

With solar power being available only during day time, the present share of solar in electricity mix is only about 1%. Our present energy consumption is about 1,150 BU and should reach 1,570 BU by 2022. Even with our ambitious goal of 175 GW renewable power, out of additional requirement of 420 billion units (BU), solar will add only around 140 BU and wind around 60 BU. Thus, 220 BU will be required from conventional power projects. Thus, it is fallacious to propound that this solar capacity would ‘kill’ thermal power.

For the foreseeable future, India will need both thermal and solar power. Thermal power will continue to be the base load for reasons of availability and grid stability. But we still have long way to go. Our per capita electricity consumption is only one-fifth of the world average!

As India grows to improve the living standards of its citizens, our electricity needs will increase. With the focus on ‘Make In India’, the thermal plants with lower plant load factors will provide the ready spare capacity for the growing economy.  While we should reach 100% village electrification in next two years, we still have to empower about 230 million Indians with quality provision of power. Thus, electricity demand will grow from this drive for household electrification.

Indian Railways plans to electrify 24,000 km of tracks. Over 34 cities will add about 1,200 km of metro routes in the next decade. Besides, several cities are rapidly augmenting their water and sewage treatment and pumping capacities. The ongoing initiative for modernising thermal plants of 60 GW capacity which need refurbishment as also for reforming coal linkage processes will promote efficient thermal plants and increase business competitiveness.

For these very reasons, while our solar installed base has grown rapidly, thermal installed base has also grown at 26%. Thus, there is no need for scaremongering against the solar power. The Indian power sector should have its feet firmly planted on the ground and eyes set on the horizon and beyond. In the RE sector, India is poised for a major transition with opening of new business and employment opportunities and with need for financial subsidies evaporating.

We should now focus on better forecasting and scheduling systems, promotion of electric vehicles, hybridising wind and solar projects and expanding transmission capacities so that conventional and RE go hand in hand.

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