100,000MW of costly solar power can sink ‘Make in India’

Narendra Modi has raised the target for solar electric capacity from 20,000MW to 100,000MW by 2022 at a cost of maybe $100 billion. This is a serious blunder. It will sabotage his “Make in India” plans by technically disrupting the whole electricity grid, and raising the cost of a critical manufacturing input — electricity.

India already has the highest interest rates among its Asian competitors. Its new land law will raise land prices maybe fourfold, making India uncompetitive there too. Indian electricity has long been uncompetitive: bulk power costs Rs 6-7/unit or more in most states, one and a half times as much as in competing Asian countries. Solar power will be even more expensive, despite massive subsidies. So, “Make in India” will take a hit.

As long as solar power was a small fraction of total power supply, its national impact was marginal. Experimentation with various solar technologies made sense, preparing for the day when solar power would finally become competitive. Its cost has halved in the last decade, but needs to halve again.

However, 100,000MW of solar power by 2022 will constitute maybe a quarter of total power capacity. This will upset the whole grid, since solar power disappears when the sun sets, just as electricity demand rises to its daily peak, with homes switching on lights and stoves. Meeting peak needs will require a big cushion of idle thermal power during the day, a huge hidden cost of solar power.

Since 100,000MW of solar power by 2022 will disrupt the grid and raise electricity costs for manufacturers, we must ask: what’s the hurry? Why not wait till solar power becomes competitive, and then go all out?

Steel or cement manufacturers will tell you, if new developments promise to will halve costs five years hence, it would be mad to invest today. Yet that madness is proposed for solar power.

Solar electricity is most promising. But it is also hugely subsidized today. Stripped of subsidies, solar power currently costs 14 cents/unit (around Rs 9.5/unit). With subsidies, solar producers have been able to reduce their bids substantially in recent years. Adani has just signed a deal in Tamil Nadu to supply solar electricity at Rs 7.01/unit.

But add transmission and distribution costs, various levies, plus cross-subsidies for farmers and homes, and bulk power for industry will cost Rs 9/unit. That is prohibitive and will make users uncompetitive. Big companies producing captive power from captive coal mines say their electricity costs just Rs 2/unit. This will go up a bit after high auction prices for new captive mines, but will remain far below even subsidized solar power. But not every manufacturer can generate captive power.

Most state electricity boards are bust, with accumulated losses approaching Rs 300,000 crore. Some electricity distribution companies refuse to buy even small amounts of expensive solar power that they are mandated to buy, and many refuse even cheap conventional power for want of funds. So, who can credibly guarantee that they will actually pay for Modi’s huge additions of costly solar power?

Being non-polluting, solar power deserves some price preference. But it already enjoys huge preferences. Taxes, cesses, royalties and auction prices are levied on fossil fuels. Equipment for thermal power and coal mining equipment is taxed, while solar equipment is highly subsidized and mostly duty-free.

Solar costs have plummeted recently with new technologies and scale economies. Hopefully this will continue, but it’s not guaranteed. The US gave large subsidies to a glamorous solar company Solyandra, hailed as a US champion by Obama. Alas, Solyandra couldn’t match Chinese companies cutting prices, and went bust.

The biggest Chinese solar company, Hanergy, became a stock market darling. Its owner, Li Hejun, became the richest man in China. But Hanergy has just suffered a meltdown in Chinese stock markets after revelations of dodgy accounting. This should sober all those who have become euphoric about future solar prospects. At least some of the recent fall in solar prices has been due not just to subsidies but unsustainable price-cutting. Warning: falling solar prices can represent distress sales, not cost breakthroughs.

Hopefully, a cost breakthrough will ultimately come. Yet that is not guaranteed. We should move forward modestly, starting with rooftop solar panels that eliminate transmission and distribution costs. We should experiment with new ideas like solar pumps for farmers: these can be economic if they replace free farm electricity.

Apart from such experiments, we should go all out on solar power only after it is fully established as competitive, and even then only to the extent it does not disturb the grid. Otherwise we will be risking the entire edifice of Indian manufacturing on a bet that could go badly wrong.

6 thoughts on “100,000MW of costly solar power can sink ‘Make in India’”

  1. Going by our past experience, if we target 100000 MW now, we may hit the original target of 20000 MW by 2022.

    Your analysis is correct but you forgot to take into account about what if no technological breakthrough happens in a century or so. Should we continue experimenting with climate till then (assuming gas/coal will last) ?

    Also to put things into proper perspective, the estimate of 100 billion $ to be spend on solar energy over next 7-8 years is still far less than 3 years of India’s defense budget. It is around 1/3rd of 1.76 lakh crores – India’s loss in 2G spectrum case.

    Kind regards,

  2. Dear Sir:
    There is no proper rational for arriving at 100GW for Solar; this was established due to few folks from Tata Power Solar and others from Bridge to India as the number looks fancy to pitch, remember and hopefully sell. The problem in India is lack of rationalization at every level and unfortunately since the bandwagon gets to accomodate as many as possible people join in herds. We are looking at other countries like Germany and Japan to move forward but not looking at what we can best deliver. Discoms are bleeding profusely and we have few in the ministry thinking of financial engineering as the holy grail! Unfortunately a less popular opinion in the country is considered anti democratic and irrational also, so we have to wait for rationalization which I hope will dawn on the country as the natural forces of market will take driver’s seat.

  3. Swami Sir, the name of the US company you referred to is “Solyndra”, not “Solyandra”. You put an extra A in the name.

  4. Well explained, whatever, implementation issues are to be properly addressed encouraging volume added trade capacities in solar power establishments. It is better to allow the solar power industry to evolve for volume added trade through scale based economy schemes instead of pumping unfairly tax payers money for solar energy industry in the form of subsidies.

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