By Kim Robson:
Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, has approved a $19 billion dollar plan to make India a world leader in solar energy by 2050. The ambitious “solar mission,” announced in June 2008, is part of India’s national action plan on climate change.
The plan aims to reduce the price of solar electricity to match the price of energy from fossil fuels by 2030, and to
increase installed solar capacity from its current 5 megawatts (MW) to 20 gigawatts (GW) by 2020, 100 GW by 2030, and 200 GW by 2050. (A gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts.) The production cost of solar power in India has fallen by more than half in recent years, and it could plummet further. But these costs are still high compared to coal, nuclear power or natural gas. The projected 200 GW would exceed the current 150 GW power generation capacity of all of India’s coal, gas and nuclear plants combined.
Towards that end, India has committed to building the world’s largest solar plant. Its projected capacity of 4,000 MW is comparable to that of four full-size nuclear reactors. The project will be more than ten times larger than any other solar project built so far, and it will cover more land than the island of Manhattan. Compare that to the current largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant, in Abu Dhabi, currently operating at 100 MW, or Brightsource Energy’s 392 megawatt CSP plant in the Mojave Desert, 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas.
Six state owned companies will complete the project as a joint venture. Projected to be completed in seven years at a cost forecast at $4.4 billion, it will be located near Sambhar Salt Lake in the northern state of Rajasthan. The plant will have an estimated life of 25 years and is expected to supply 6.4 billion kilowatt hours per year. It could help reduce India’s carbon dioxide emissions by more than 4 million tons per year, estimates Parimita Mohanty, a fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi.
India’s current grid-connected solar power capacity is 2,208 MW, which is a huge increase from 17.8 MW in 2010, when the central government launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM). “If things go according to plan, we might well surpass that figure,” says Tarun Kapoor, chief of the JNNSM and joint secretary of India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.
India is collaborating with the United States to map its potential for solar energy production across the entire country, using satellite imagery. It also has set up 51 dedicated measurement stations to assess the availability of solar radiation, adding to data collected by 45 meteorological observatories.
Full sunlight produces about 100 watts of solar energy per square foot. Assuming 12 hours of sun per day, this equates to 438,000 watt-hours per square foot per year. Based on 27,878,400 square feet per square mile, sunlight bestows a whopping 12.2 trillion watt-hours per square mile per year. The amount of solar energy that strikes Earth’s surface per year is about 29,000 times greater than all of the energy used in the United States.
The project also will need to improve India’s aging electrical grid. Twenty per cent of its electricity is wasted in transmission and distribution losses. Most electricity is routed to cities, but fewer than 50% of the villages outside urban areas have access to electricity.
Chandra Bhushan, deputy director-general of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi, says, “We don’t think this should be the way to go ahead.” A decentralized approach to solar, with multiple smaller projects spread over rural areas, would have a far greater reach, a larger social benefit, and better human development impact than one enormous plant feeding the grid.
Rajendra Pachauri, director-general of TERI and chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that the JNNSM should keep working on both large-scale and decentralized approaches. “India must see itself emerge as the worldwide leader in harnessing solar energy involving technologies for centralized power generation, as well as millions of small, decentralized applications.”