India’s Grid Cuts Out

Suddenly, the world is intrigued by India’s unstable grid and the role solar power can play in providing solutions for a country desperately in need of a new energy strategy.

India has in recent months been laying the groundwork to eventually become a major solar market, but the process has gone slower than expected. But now it looks like India received its wakeup call in the form of a massive power outage that affected more than 600 million residents.

India’s late July grid failure has been determined the world’s largest blackout. This event will no doubt spur some movement toward efficiency and discipline. India requires new and innovative thinking and effectiveness through structural change. This is also the time to focus on renewable energy, particularly solar photovoltaics.

‘India is the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy sources and, if properly utilised, India can realise its place in the world as a great power,’ said Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and activist, ‘but political will is required for the eventual shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.’

Even if 10% of India’s energy needs can be met by solar, it would be a huge contribution in taking the edge off peak load.

Solar panel prices have dropped by over 50% during the past year, and those of the supporting hardware – including cables, connectors and inverters – are expected to continue to drop at a slower rate. Overall, system prices now are practically at grid parity, especially when the average price includes the unsubsidised cost of diesel-based generation, frequently used when power fails.

In India, not only can solar generation work as a complement to the grid, but it can bring power to the 400 million or so citizens without electricity. Many of these people live in rural areas where grid extension is not economical; solar energy for self-sufficiency is one immediate and affordable solution.

What are the costs of electricity’s absence? Lost opportunities for augmenting livelihood, children forced to study by candlelight or kerosene lamps, or not at all.

There are several solar energy solutions. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is mostly focused on using solar energy, like any other fuel source, to feed the grid. Typically, this is through concentrated solar solutions, and recently through photovoltaic panels due to price drops. Solutions that feed power to the grid are important, but they only augment an over-stressed grid – they do not help the millions without any grid power. The Ministry mostly ignores distributed generation, the solar self-sufficiency solutions like rooftop panels or community grids.

Clean energy technologies are in the middle of unprecedented innovations. Bloomberg New Energy Finance studies show the patent growth in this space has accelerated so much that, around 2005, clean energy patents surpassed the patents generated in all other technologies combined.

India can be a part of this innovation boom, but not unless the government gets out of the way.

Incentives and regulations can help, but not the creation of one more government of India ‘undertaking,’ or the creation of an Innovation Council comprised of distinguished people, but with an agenda that does not include renewable energy.

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