Can India power its real estate on solar energy?

 —  Article by Shilpa Pai Mizar
Chennai in India cityscape
Image credit: Shutterstock

India is on a mission to put its ample sunshine to work, with ambitious efforts underway that have already started to reshape energy consumption across the country.

India currently depends largely on coal for power. But over the last few years the Indian government has been improving its renewable energy infrastructure and creating policies aimed at moving toward greater use of solar power.

“India’s approach is bold,” says Kumar Ramaiah, Director, Energy & Sustainability at JLL, India. “While investors have been coming in droves, there is still a need to step up policies and incentives to increase interest.”

There are now signs that the hard work is paying off: Japanese tech giant Softbank recently announced plans to invest US$100 billion in Indian solar power. Last year, India attracted nearly 30 percent of corporate funding in the sector globally.

With the Indian government providing infrastructure such as land, water and roads, the path to further gains is being cleared. Five of the world’s ten largest solar parks are being built in the country, and India’s solar market is poised to overtake the U.S. and become the world’s second largest, only behind China.

Looking at impact

The west Indian island of Diu is one of India’s most recent solar accomplishments. It once imported nearly three-quarters of its power from nearby state Gujarat but the district is now self-sufficient in day-time electricity needs with power from a solar park and rooftop solar-power units on government buildings. Residents are also being offered subsidies to set up rooftop units.

Multinational companies in the south Indian city of Bengaluru — such as Adobe, Cisco, and Accenture — have made use of favourable open-access policies to move to solar power. Some of them have signed power-purchase agreements (PPAs) that allow them to directly buy power from solar developers, Kumar says. PPAs are beneficial to both parties as they lock in prices.

Growing numbers of educational institutions around the country are also beginning to turn to solar to cut back on energy power bills. And last year, UK universities launched a project to transform five villages into solar power stations and encourage the uptake of solar products in the country.

Indeed, global co-operation is seen as key to making solar mainstream. Back in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi co-founded the International Solar Alliance of 122 sun-rich countries as a platform for cooperation to effectively harness solar energy.

The World Bank has since pledged $1 billion to support India’s solar goals and signed an agreement with the International Solar Alliance (ISA) to collaborate on increasing solar energy use around the world and mobilize $1 trillion in investments by 2030.

“There is no question that India has vast potential for solar power, but it will need to stay on this path in order to meet its climate goals under the Paris agreement,” Kumar says.

Work to be done

However, the transition to solar power is being met by two main roadblocks.

One hurdle is infrastructure. India’s grid system lacks uniform connectivity. A solution is being developed that will integrate regional and national systems to help optimally transfer power from large solar parks to distant locations across the country, but this is still some way off.

Given that sunshine can be intermittent, the country also requires investment in smart grids that will instantly detect variations and switch between sources to maintain stable supply, said Kumar. Here again, pilot projects are underway across the country and the Indian smart grid market is projected to attract investments of up to US$44.9 billion.

The other roadblock hampering the countrywide switch to solar: slow adoption of rooftop units in cities.

Residential consumers are put off by the high installation costs and the technical know-how needed to make these units part of the existing grid for stable supply. Commercial and industrial users are also not incentivized due to restrictive net metering policies in various states.

It’s therefore vital that central and state bodies work together to create favourable guidelines for solar adoption, Kumar says.

“India will continue to attract investment in solar projects,” he says. “Consistent, uniform policies across the country is all that investors are looking for.”

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