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Tapping solar power, the Moser Baer way

Oct 31, 2012

The Moser Baer solar power plant in Tamil Nadu generates just 5 MW of power but sparks high voltage hopes for the future of solar energy in the country. Find out why.

Shifting to clean, renewable energy sources, that is primarily solar and wind, is literally like climbing out of the coal pits for large global economies. Most fast moving economies in the developing world with rapidly growing energy needs do not even see it as an option. But the fact remains that fossil fuel (oil, coal and gas), which currently meet nearly 80 per cent of all global energy needs, will not last forever—just as well. Because if they did and we continued to burn them at the rate we are then it would without a doubt lead to an environmental disaster.

Fortunately, small but significant sparks of hope are emerging. Moser Baer, a New Delhi-based technology-to-power business major, commissioned a 5-MW solar power plant in December 2010 in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu at a cost of Rs 100 crores for the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA) under the Generation Based Incentive (GBI) scheme of the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy with funding support from IDBI and the International Finance Corporation. Though 5 MWs may seem tiny when we are talking thousands of megawatts to keep the wheels of India’s economy moving, it may still prove to be a turning point in the country’s journey towards a clean and sustainable energy future.

This is because the Sivaganga solar plant is thus far the largest in India in terms of capacity. More importantly at Rs 20 crores its cost-per-megawatt of power generated, though higher than the best global standard of Rs 13 crores, is still better than anything achieved thus far. More encouragingly, with new technologies constantly chipping away at the cost of solar installation, the biggest deterrent thus far to its wider acceptance, the per-megawatt cost is expected to slide to Rs 10 crores in the near future. This is still more than twice as much as it costs to generate thermal power with top-end supercritical technologies. But given the huge and increasingly unsustainable environmental cost of fossil fuels, the world must eventually migrate to renewables.

The Moser Baer plant is a landmark also because it incorporates a grid interactive photovoltaic (SPV) technology that is specifically suited to Indian climate. Its successful commissioning, therefore, validates an entire suite of technologies and is, therefore, sure to increase the pitch of advocacy for solar-fired power plants. Moreover, the plant yields revenue of around Rs 15 per unit, which is significant given that solar is a free energy source and the running cost of any plant based on the fuel would, therefore, be meagre. With a better-than-expected plant load factor of 20 per cent, the plant on an average generates 24,500 units of power per day most of which is fed into the grid.

In March 2011, the plant achieved a high of 31,500 units and despite incessant rains it has still churned out 15,000 units per day through the monsoon, says the facility’s senior manager, Kanagaraj Ramachandran. He adds: “Tamil Nadu scores over states like Rajasthan and Gujarat, which are currently at the top of the solar leader-board because it is not prone to sandstorms, which tend to damage the solar panels and thereby affect their efficiency.”

Besides, instead of the widely used crystalline film technology, which works well on European climes, the Sivaganga project is built around the thin film technology, which is better suited to Indian weather conditions although it requires twice the amount of land.  The estimated gross potential for land-based grid connected Solar PV in Tamil Nadu is between 4,000 MW and 21,700 MW, according to the Pune-based World Institute of Sustainable Energy (WISE).

By 2017 Tamil Nadu expects to ramp up its installed solar power capacity to 3000 MW and alongside enact a Solar Purchase Obligation law that will make it mandatory for large power consumers to buy six per cent of their consumption either from solar energy producers or from the state generation and distribution utility at higher prices. They would otherwise have to buy solar renewable energy certificates. Experts believe that this legislation will sweep large investments into the development of solar power in the state with the Sivaganga project serving as a model.

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