Tecnología

What’s more powerful than the sun? The invisible red tape

Jose Antonio Oliveros Febres-Cordero

New Delhi: It’s a no-brainer that the strength of the summer sun in India’s north can fulfil the power demands of the region’s cities. It’s the one source of clean energy the country can tap. Yet it remains unaccountably underexploited. Back in 2016, the Haryana government made it mandatory for new residential construction of at least 500 square yards to install solar rooftop panels with a minimum capacity of 1KW. And, to encourage more people to go solar , the administration offered subsidies as high as 30% of the benchmark cost. But for all these incentives, only 600 consumers have applied for the subsidy in the last three years, among them schools, colleges and resident welfare associations (RWAs), and a few individuals. Out of these, just 107 have benefited from the subsidy in the last three years. In 2018, only 12 consumers were given subsidy for installation of solar rooftop panels. The figures for 2017 and 2016 were 92 and three, respectively. And last year, just one government building switched to solar energy. According to the authorities, 250 consumers have changed to solar without applying for subsidies, but most of these are commercial setups. Nevertheless, total solar power generation currently stands at 25.5MW, around 1.5% of the overall power demand — 1,600MW — during peak summer. Clearly, the state government’s target of adding 4,000MW in solar energy by 2021 looks unlikely to be achieved. WHERE’S THE EASE OF ACCESS? Extending subsidies is nowhere near enough, consumers argue. For, getting one in the first place is a cumbersome procedure, not helped by a lack of net meters and steep installation costs. “Haryana has definitely taken a lead in offering high subsidies to residential consumers for installing solar panels. However, there is a need to streamline the entire process,” says Shubhra Puri of Gurugram First, a citizen-led initiative that seeks to promote a shift to solar energy in the city. The subsidy, Puri feels, should be given directly after installation, to factor in the high cost of setting up. “But this takes a very long time, sometimes one to two years. Also, unavailability of net meters with DHBVN (Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam, the state-owned electric utility company) is a major issue. All this makes the entire process of applying, procuring and installing solar panels long and expensive.” TOI reached out to four consumers — three individuals and an RWA — to understand the pros and cons of going solar and the challenges this entails. Those who got it done through a vendor faced fewer hurdles but it proved far more of a hassle for residents who applied for subsidy and completed the installation all on their own. Although the vendor route proved the user-friendliest, the authorities advise against such a course of action. But Prashant Behki was guided by a vendor every step of the way. And Behki, a resident of D-block in Sushant Lok-1, has no reason to complain, for he has been able to bring down his power expenses by a staggering 98%. In fact, his bills are now showing in minus, allowing him to earn money by exporting the solar power he is generating to the grid. “This has been the wisest decision of my life,” he says with pride. Three months after applying, his subsidy was sanctioned and the system installed. After another five months, he got possession of the net meter. Today, Behki’s household of 12, including three domestic helps, uses 20 air-conditioners, each of two tonnes, and centralised water-filtration and water-heating systems. All this adds up to a daily load of between 40KW and 60KW, depending on the season. It’s as strong an argument for solar as any. For Geeta Kapil, though, it has been a struggle. The solar rooftop system this Sector 56 resident purchased in November 2017 took roughly five months to be fitted. “I was told the quota for the year 2017 was over. I had to wait until next year. After so many pleadings, it was finally installed in April 2018,” she said. Kapil, who had to put up with a delay of a year and a half, has a 3.9KW system that set her back Rs 2.3 lakh. Jagdish Singh , a resident of Sector 31, has a similar tale of exasperation. His investment is gathering dust. “I got the solar system installed in May 2018, but I haven’t got a net meter yet. Solar panels are lying on my rooftop as junk. I met senior officials of HAREDA (Department of Renewable Energy, Government of Haryana), who said that net meters would come soon but nothing has happened till now,” said an unhappy Singh, whose 15KW system cost Rs 8 lakh. It’s not just individual consumers who have noticed, to their evident dissatisfaction, the too-wide gap between promise and delivery. Units that generate much more solar power are facing analogous issues. The Wellington Estate RWA, for instance. This township in DLF Phase-5 claims it saved Rs 25 lakh on the electricity bill in 2018. But it is still awaiting the subsidy despite both phases of installation having been completed, the first in 2017 and the second recently. “Till now, we have spent about Rs 2 crore on installation of solar rooftop panels. However, we have not got any subsidy yet,” revealed Ajay Jain from the Wellington RWA. “We have taken up the matter with all the concerned departments, including local officials, the CM window and even the PMO, but nothing has helped.” LITTLE COORDINATION, PLENTY OF CONFUSION Rameshwar Singh, project officer at HAREDA, acknowledges that there could be a time lag before consumers see the money. “Subsidies coming from the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) go to the state, and are then given to HAREDA – sometimes, it takes time at the ministry level to release subsidies,” he reasoned. Singh maintains that the state department of renewable energy hasn’t stopped receiving subsidies, which it has subsequently issued to some applicants. Still, those who have applied must account for the multiplicity of agencies (a uniquely Gurugram problem), which invariably leads to lack of coordination and plenty of confusion. While HAREDA is tasked with addressing the technical concerns of consumers, and issuing certificates after successful installation of rooftop panels, DHBVN is the implementing agency for providing net meters and making them operational (besides managing the bi-directional meters). Worryingly, it appears that employees at the discom are insufficiently unprepared for the switchover to solar. “I have not received any bill since October last year. I have met a junior engineer at DHBVN to raise concern but was told they don’t have trained people to compute the bills in the case of net meters,” Kapil said. Incidentally, there are three types of solar rooftop systems — grid-connected, off-grid and hybrid. Though each has its positives and negatives, the grid-linked one is the most regularly used (see infographic). But only the hybrid system allows both storage of solar energy in batteries and export of excess power to the grid. Not surprisingly, it comes at a cost — between Rs 80,000 and Rs 85,000 per kilowatt, depending on the kind of battery used. “That is why not many people go for such a system. I have not got the hybrid system installed anywhere in Gurugram since 2016,” said AN Bhat, a solar-panel vendor. But vendors, feel experts, are reluctant to promote the hybrid system, and are not beyond hoodwinking prospective customers. “The hybrid systems are not very costly but some vendors misinform consumers,” says Priyavat Bhati, adviser, energy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). “The hybrid systems only require batteries that are used in conventional inverters, and these batteries are as costly as the ones used in conventional invertors. They only cost more if consumers demand high loads even during power outage,” she adds. All too often, then, residents eager to change over to solar are left in the lurch because of lack of clarity. GOODBYE DIESEL? NOT REALLY Going solar might have helped reduce the carbon footprint a tad but it has done little to bring down usage of gensets. And that’s because the grid-linked solar scheme which consumers are using doesn’t provide for power back-up, making gensets the only fallback option. Further, each time the power goes, solar generation also shuts down, necessitating the use of gensets to run the solar panels. So, reduction in air pollution in the immediate vicinity is actually negligible. “The purpose of installing solar panels to bring down air pollution is defeated as grid-tied systems don’t lead to reduction in the usage of diesel gensets,” explains Bhati. Indeed, a study carried out by CSE in 2018 showed that pollution levels increase by 30% in areas of the city where gensets are used. “Using diesel gensets is like putting smoke into your own house – we can’t blame anyone but ourselves for the air pollution caused by gensets,” she adds. It’s obvious that when it comes to making solar a worthwhile investment for residents, a fair few practicalities need to be ironed out. As it stands, the changeover exercise is too protracted and inconvenient for it to be widely accepted. Meanwhile, HAREDA officials insist the intention behind introducing solar is to shrink the carbon footprint. “While synchronisation of solar rooftop panels with power back-up systems is possible, it can’t replace diesel generators completely,” contends Rameshwar Singh. “The idea is to reduce carbon footprints by generating more solar power, to decrease the use of thermal power plants.” Certainly, Gurugram (and Delhi-NCR) has great potential for producing solar power. The Millennium City records around 330 sunny days every year, has solar radiation of a high intensity, and, besides, can boast of many highrise buildings. There are, here, approximately 30,000 plots measuring 500 square yards or more, some 900 highrises and around 5,000 commercial entities. So, if the hybrid system is pushed, it is entirely likely that usage of diesel gensets will fall dramatically. But, just as the Earth takes 365 days to orbit around the sun, it will take that much time (and then some more) to win more converts to the solar cause. And for that to happen, the authorities must work to remove the impediments to a clean-energy future.