Even as India takes the lead in setting up a global solar alliance, the industry for solar products in the country is caught in a bind. Despite years of research, subsidies and a growing basket of products, none has been able to build a successful national brand and the industry continues to be the preserve of unorganised businesses selling in local marketplaces. There is a range of solar products now available - lamps, mobile phone chargers, radio and music players, garden lights, power back-up systems and agricultural pumps - but the market for these products is in disarray. Information is hazy and incomplete, small and regional players hold sway and the supporting businesses - service centres, helplines and product supplements - imperative for a vibrant marketplace, are missing. The result: demand is low as urban consumers stay away and rural consumers turn to solar only when there is no other energy alternative.
|NO LOGOS ON THE SOLAR TRAIL|
It has been in the industry for 25 years. But there is minimal brand recall in areas where it isn't present though the impact has been phenomenal in the areas Tata has worked," says Dangyach. To an extent, the problem lies with the way the industry is perceived; it is seen more as a social enterprise than a business. The perception derives from the nature of the industry and from that of its founders. Greenlight Planet, for instance was founded by T Patrick Walsh, a University of Illinois student in 2005 who designed and sold the first solar-lantern in 2006 in Odisha. The original intent was to make solar affordable and accessible, not to build a business. To add to the problem, government support has been erratic. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) along with NABARD used to have a scheme that subsidised the purchase of solar lamps, home systems or solar back-up solutions and equipment. NABARD and other rural banks used to provide low cost financing alternatives. MNRE also had channel partners manufacturing solar products and some state governments had pitched in with additional subsidies taking the total to 75-85 per cent. However, the subsidy payments to companies dwindled after the initial euphoria. The payment backlog ran into months. Now, the MNRE has rolled back the schemes and with no state support, even the banks are reluctant. "It is a very slow market. The sector needs to be mature enough to be left without subsidy," says a Delhi based sector analyst. The margins are low and companies find it difficult to rustle up the investments required to market their products. This makes it near impossible for brands to flourish and keeps out the large and established players. Now with the global push in favour of solar power, it is perhaps time to script a new story for the sector.