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India seeks to boost rooftop solar, especially for its remote areas

B360 February 22, 2024, 3:26 pm
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BENGALURU, INDIA: Just a few years ago, someone who wanted to install a rooftop solar connection in India faced getting multiple approvals, finding a reliable company to install the panels and spending heavily before seeing the first surge of clean energy.

But that's changing. The government has streamlined the approvals process, made it easier for people to claim subsidies and pushed mountains of cash — including $9 billion announced this month — to encourage faster adoption of technology that's seen as critical for India to reach its clean-energy goals.

"We had to get 45 signatures to set up a small rooftop solar connection in 2021," said Shreya Mishra, CEO of Mumbai-based Solar Square, one of India's largest rooftop solar companies. "Today it's almost instantaneous."

For this sun-soaked country, growth in rooftop solar can't come soon enough. India last year became the world's most populous nation, with 1.4 billion people and a hunger for energy that is rising fast.

Yet India, one of the world's biggest emitters of planet-warming gases, is also highly vulnerable to climate change. Its people are affected by deadly floods, extreme rainfall, extreme heat, prolonged droughts and cyclones with increasing frequency. A study earlier this year found that nine out of India's 28 states will be among the world's hardest-hit regions due to climate change by midcentury.

India has grown its clean power rapidly in recent years and has the fourth-most installed renewable power, trailing only China, the US and Brazil. It had 180 gigawatts as of December, enough to power about 18 million homes, with nearly half from solar.

But most of that solar power comes from numerous football-field-sized solar farms. Less than 15% comes from rooftop arrays, and India has so far managed to set up only 11 gigawatts of rooftop solar. That's far less than the 40 gigawatts it hoped to have by 2022.

Energy experts say rooftop solar is essential to bring power to remote areas, where it can be installed cheaply where it's needed and avoid the cost of transmitting the energy over long distances.

India's latest push was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said the $9 billion would provide "free electricity" for up to 10 million homes.

Neeraj Kuldeep of the New Delhi-based think tank, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, has tracked rooftop solar for nearly a decade. A report from CEEW last year found that only 50% of Indians are likely aware of rooftop solar as an energy solution and most of those who were aware thought it was too expensive. The report released last November recommended subsidies for consumers who can benefit from small rooftop solar arrays but can't afford them.

Kuldeep said consumer awareness about rooftop solar is one key to driving growth. Others are efficient governments at both the federal and state level, and finding the right "fit" for a particular user's power needs.

Experts say another is getting buy-in from state-owned electricity companies who sometimes see rooftop solar as a threat to their profits.

Kuldeep said that's short-sighted. The companies can often actually make more money if they help install rooftop solar in a low-consumption home, he said. That's because they cut their transmission and distribution costs to carry power to a house with a subsidized bill that already earns them little profit.

Installations have also risen since the government launched a national rooftop solar portal in 2022 that consumers can use to claim and steer government subsidies directly to their bank account, say experts and rooftop solar companies.

Mysun, a rooftop solar company based in New Delhi, offers potential buyers a "solar calculator" on its website where they can enter their location and current electricity costs to see what kind of savings they could expect. CEO Gagan Vermani said it's about simplifying the process for potential customers.

"We need to start thinking of (rooftop solar) with consumer needs in mind rather than thinking of it as building solar infrastructure," he said.

Those who are already hooked up with panels on their roofs tout the benefits of cheaper electricity and greater agency over their own power.

"It is a little expensive but it's totally worth it," said Ruchika Chahana, who lives in the affluent Greater Kailash neighborhood in New Delhi. Chahana installed rooftop solar in her home nine months ago at a cost of nearly $5,000. She said her summer electricity bills have fallen to about $50 a month, from $200, and her family feels great about "doing something to save the planet."

In Bengaluru, Satish Mallya saw rooftop solar as essential both to save money and avert carbon emissions. He took the lead in installing 65 kilowatts of solar atop the 120-unit apartment complex he lives in, and the building's electricity costs have dropped $700 a month.

That 2020 installation was "challenging" because of bureaucratic hurdles, said Mallya, who serves as vice president of a citywide group that represents apartment dwellers and owners. He's helped many others set up their own rooftop solar connections in the years since, and says the process has gotten easier.

Mishra, of Solar Square, said she's seeing a big increase in interest in a technology that she calls "a key part of India's energy future."

"As an Indian and an entrepreneur, I'm extremely proud of seeing this getting built up," she said. "I think building energy infrastructure is the greatest nation-building thing we can do."


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JUNE 2024

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