The renewable energy sector has been an exception in this pandemic. Unlike many other sectors, it has remained largely unaffected. BE’s Saptarshi Deb spoke to S.P. Gon Chaudhuri, Chairman, International Solar Innovation Council about the renewable energy sector in India.
Q) The Indian economy is under stress. Under the given circumstances, how would you estimate the importance of renewable energy as a factor to regain economic growth for India?
A) It is true that the Indian economy is under stress due to the pandemic. Sectors like tourism, transport, and logistics have been badly hit. However, there is a different story in the renewable energy sector. The sector has remained largely unaffected. The government from the very beginning of the lockdown has promoted the renewable energy sector. Investment in the sector is also growing and new entrepreneurs are entering the space.
Renewable energy is a priority sector across the globe – because of the environmental issues. We were importing a lot of Chinese products in the renewable energy sector. However, due to the recent issue with China, the Indian government is looking at self-reliance and encouraging domestic production of renewable energy items – particularly solar energy items. If implemented correctly, this will be a huge economic booster. If we really start manufacturing our own components and substitute imports, that will have a positive impact on the economy and lead to further investment inflows and strengthen the Indian economy. Additionally, a lot of industries are willing to switch to renewable energy as the cost of renewable energy has come down and the cost of thermal energy is going up. However, that process is in transition. Many industries are looking to use renewable energy for their own captive consumption. That way there would be lot of new investments from existing industries as they are looking to set up their own renewable energy plants. There are two sides to this. The economy will strengthen due to investment in the renewable energy component producing segment. There is expected to be significant traction in the renewable energy power generation units or the captive power units. Both will influence the Indian economy positively.
Q) How do you assess the role of the renewable energy sector in creating social infrastructure in India?
A) The role of renewable energy in creating social infrastructure is visible now. India is producing significant quantities of renewable power (more than 80,000 MW). It is helping to provide electricity in remote areas. A lot of employment has also been generated. Electricity is a major infrastructure input for social development and increased focus on renewable energy is ensuring greater penetration of electricity.
Under the Swachh Bharat programme, the government focused on building toilets but providing electricity and running water to these units were difficult. However, with the help of renewable energy, these problems could be solved. Since renewable energy is modular in nature, it was extensively used to install small solar pumps to ensure running water and lighting facilities in these toilets. Promotion of solar lights (micro solar domes) have also ensured enhancement of social infrastructure in remotes areas like forest villages and tribal hamlets.
Q) Do you think renewable energy is attracting enough private investment? What kind of government policies can increase private investment in the renewable sector?
A) The renewable energy programme in India is totally privately funded. In fact, 95% of the renewable energy power plants are funded by private entities. There is a significant private involvement in the wind power generation sector. It holds true for solar as well as small hydro power projects.
Government policies are looking to promote renewable energy. But the main issue is that the discoms (who are the buyers of electricity) are not very comfortable in encouraging renewable energy projects due to their weak financial health. In absence of clear purchase agreements with the discoms, renewable energy companies are not getting bank loans for their projects which is hampering the sector. Though there are required regulations in place from the government, discoms often do not follow them in the right spirit. There have been instances of unnecessary delays in case of small home-based rooftop solar power plants as well.
Q) The Indian government has set up an ambitious renewable energy target for 2022. What is the status on that front? Would you suggest any policy changes for reaching that target?
A) The Indian government has set up an ambitious target of generation of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. Out of this, 100 GW is to come from solar, 50 GW is to come from wind and the rest from other sources. We have achieved only half of our target as of now. Unless there is a very big thrust from the government, achieving our target is going to be very difficult within the stipulated time frame. To achieve this target, there is need to change certain policies. The problems generating from the discoms have to be handled by the government. They (the discoms) have to be coerced into buying renewable energy. Something like a ‘mandatory purchase obligation’ needs to be in place for the discoms. State governments must also be invested in the process so that state regulators buy power from renewable energy producers. The government must ensure that the discoms fall in line and purchase renewable power.
Q) You have been involved with the West Bengal government in implementing renewable energy projects. How would you evaluate the renewable energy sector in the state?
A) West Bengal has pioneered various renewable energy projects in the country. The state’s achievement in the off-grid renewable energy segment is commendable. The case of Sundarbans is an example. Even during the recent Amphan cyclone, many villagers had access to basic power due to their access to solar energy systems which were installed long back (15-20 years). However, in case of large solar or wind plants, West Bengal has not been able to contribute greatly. Having said that, the West Bengal government has recently created a new and separate department for renewable energy. This is a positive development and we can hope for the necessary policy corrections. Then again, the very first large sized solar plant was installed in the state in Jamuria, Asansol. The first floating solar power plant of the country also came up in 2014 in New Town, Kolkata.
Q) You are one of the first few who took to application of solar power in India in the early 1980s. How has been this journey that has spanned across almost four decades?
A) It was challenging. When we started off in the early 1980s, we were only a few people in India who were talking about renewable energy. Yes, we faced a certain degree of opposition from people in the conventional energy sector. But I also received tremendous supporters from many administrators. Initially, we started with a different concept. The idea was to provide electricity to remote areas and renewable energy was a means to that end. However, over the years, with increased exposure of the polluting impact of conventional energy, the focus has shifted to the gradual substitution of conventional energy by renewable energy. For me, it has been a largely enriching process and I feel glad that I have been able to do my part in promoting the usage of renewable energy in India.