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Off-grid solar applications to get a major boost

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On July 30, the world’s largest solar steam cooking system was installed at the , Maharashtra, to cook food for 20,000 pilgrims every day.

The system, designed and installed by Gujarat-based Gaddhia was completed within 10 months. It comprises 73 automatically tracked solar dishes and generates around 3,500 kg of steam daily. The system has been designed such that even if the electricity is not available to run the feed water pump for circulating water in the system, it can generate sufficient steam to cook food for the required number of people. It has a steam header connected with a large number of receivers where water can be stored in the morning, when electricity is available.

The total cost of the system is Rs 1.33 crore and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy () provided a subsidy of Rs 58.4 lakh to the Trust for the same. The system is expected to save around 100,000 kg of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) per year, which is equivalent to around Rs 20 lakh.

Manufacturers of small capacity solar-powered systems like Gadhia which make home lighting systems, solar lanterns, pumps, traffic blinkers, illuminating hoardings and billboards, cookers, geysers, traffic signals and even standalone power plants — all clubbed as ‘off-grid’ — have a lot more reason to smile.

The Centre is finalising its plans to offer them soft loans and subsidies. Not only through central and state government ministries and departments but also through local bodies, public sector undertakings, educational/technical institutions, non-banking financial companies , self-help groups, non-governmental organisations and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency(Ireda) itself.

“The volumes of off-grid connections have a huge potential. We believe that if we offer soft loans, it will open up the sector to smaller manufacturers too. However, it will need third-party monitoring,” says Gauri Singh, joint secretary, MNRE. The scheme, though, will not be applicable to larger manufacturers of solar photovoltaic (SPV) cells and modules.

India, where most regions enjoy nearly 300 sunny days a year (solar energy equivalent to over 5,000 trillion Kwh per year), is an ideal market for solar power companies. However, the high cost of light-to-electricity conversion — at Rs 12 to Rs 20 per Kwh (kilowatt-hour) — is a major deterrent.

Thus, despite being in the business for over two decades, the domestic revenues of the country’s solar power industry are estimated to be between $250 million and $500 million, with 60-70 per cent of solar ware being exported to Europe, North America and China.

The government has set a target of 1,000 Mw for solar power generation during the Eleventh Five Year Plan, and 20 Giga watts (Gw) by 2020. These primarily comprise huge grid-connect solar power plants from the likes of Tata BP Solar India and Moser Baer.

However, the little-documented story is that of off-grid solar-based applications, for which the government has planned an outlay of Rs 375 crore till the remaining period of the 11th Plan.

“While cost is indeed a deterrent in most cases, we believe that financing such innovative projects will help the cause of solar-based projects in a big way,” concurs Debashish Majumdar, chairman and managing director, Ireda. The Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA) feels the same. Its president Poornima Shenoy believes this step will help in boosting the fortunes of off-grid applications.

The government is targeting 2 million such SPV applications by 2020. Till March-end this year, a total of about 637,000 solar cookers, 434,692 home lighting systems, and 697,419 lanterns have been provided to people in the country.

Moreover, solar home lighting systems have been provided in most of the 5,379 unelectrified villages under the government’s Remote Village Electrification Programme.

The governments of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chhatisgarh and Union Territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Chandigarh have also issued orders to urban local bodies to make solar water heaters mandatory in functional buildings.

The MNRE, on its part, has been providing financial support between 25 and 50 per cent on concentrating cookers and 50-90 per cent on home lighting systems, depending on general/special category states, including the North-East region, which has been made available to people under the schemes. A subsidy of Rs 2,400 is also available for solar lanterns in unelectrified villages and hamlets of special category states and Union Territories.

During the last three years, around Rs 195 crore had been spent on solar cookers and SPV systems, which include solar lanterns and solar home lighting systems. In the current year, an amount of Rs 89 crore has been allocated for SPV systems and demonstration programmes on solar thermal systems, including solar cookers. The schemes are mainly for rural areas.

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