DHURSAR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The deserts of Rajasthan
have long been known for their spare beauty and their intense sunshine.
Now that sun is being turned into a surge of solar power expansion that
may one day power not just Rajasthan but a wide swath of India with clean
Dhursar, a village in Northwest Rajasthan’s Pokharan Tehsil, is
at the heart of that expansion. The village of 1,400 people already is
home to a 40-megawatt solar voltaic plant developed by Rajasthan Sun Technique
Energy Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of Reliance Power.
Now the company in June is scheduled to open a 100-megawatt, 620-acre
project that will concentrate the sun’s rays to convert water to
superheated steam and generate electric power. The $345 million project,
with backing from the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral banks,
is the largest project of its kind under India’s Jawaharlal Nehru
National Solar Mission, which aims to install 20,000 megawatts of solar
power in India by 2022.
Firms are also starting work to build more than a thousand miles of transmission
lines to get the power to where it is needed, with up to $500 million in
financial backing including $300 million from the Asian Development Bank
and $200 million channeled through the Climate Investment Funds
Rajasthan, with its 300 days a year of sunshine and relatively cheap desert
land, has set a goal even more ambitious than India's. In this year’s
state budget, the newly formed state government announced it hoped to install
25,000 megawatts of solar energy in the state within the next five years,
and infrastructure to transmit that power to the national grid.
If the plan succeeds, it would put India ahead of countries like China,
the United States and Italy in solar energy production, and have it chasing
world leader Germany, which has over 32,000 megawatts of solar capacity,
according to a government statement.
“The state government is working on plans to develop logistics and
attract investors targeting capacity of 25,000 megawatts in Rajasthan,” said
Chandra Shekhar Rajan, additional chief secretary for infrastructure with
the Government of Rajasthan. He admitted such a scale-up of solar energy
was “a mammoth task,” but said the project was attracting interest,
including recently from two Japanese public sector energy giants, METI
and NEDO who had offered to help devise the state’s solar plan, as
well as from KfW, a German development bank.
Rajasthan is no newcomer to renewable energy. Since the 1990s, the state
has been home to a range of wind energy projects, with about 2,800 megawatts
of wind capacity now installed, out of an estimated potential capacity
of 5,000 megawatts. Altogether wind power in Rajasthan accounts for about
13 percent of India’s wind energy production.
But Rajasthan’s Great Indian Thar Desert, the test site for India’s
first underground explosion of a nuclear weapon 15 years ago, may now help
make India a solar power as well. The desert, set in Rajasthan’s
largest district Jaisalmer, near the border with Pakistan, it is a place
of sand dunes and shrub thickets – but also, increasingly, solar
installations that could help change the character of India’s energy
COMMITMENT TO CUTTING EMISSIONS
India committed at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations
in Copenhagen in 2009 to reduce its climate-changing emissions, per unit
of GDP, by 20 to 25 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.
The country is currently the world’s seventh largest emitter of
global warming pollution and the fifth biggest producer of emissions from
burning fossil fuels. Sixty-eight percent of those emissions from fossil
fuel use come from creating energy for the world’s second most populous
country, according to India’s energy ministry.
Today the country has 2.28 million megawatts of power generating capacity,
and about 12.4 percent of that comes from renewable energy, the ministry
Of the 2,632 megawatts of solar power now installed in India, Rajasthan
so far has only 730 megawatts, putting it in second place behind the state
of Gujarat, with 916 megawatts, according to India’s Ministry of
New and Renewable Energy.
But Rajasthan, India’s largest state and 60 percent covered by sunny
desert, is now attracting the world’s interest as a solar hotspot.
“Around 1 lakh (100,000) square kilometres of barren land is available
in the northwest arid belt of the state at cheaper rates that could be
utilised for large scale solar projects. The government is formulating
the policy to harness the enormous solar potential of the region to meet
the country’s growing energy requirements”, said Alok, Rajasthan’s
energy secretary, who has no surname.
Besides large solar installations, he said, the government is studying
the possibility of grid-connected rooftop solar photovoltaic units for
households. The Solar Energy Corporation of India estimates that 130 million
homes could potentially be equipped with the units, creating 25,000 megawatts
of generating capacity.
Most of the state’s planned solar projects are being located in
four Rajasthan districts – Barmer, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Jodphur – with
relatively low population density, little water, limited agriculture and
no industrialisation, said B.K. Makhija, the technical director for Rajasthan
Renewable Energy Corporation, the agency that has been given sole responsibility
for approving projects.
Most of the project sites are set near national highways to ease transport,
or along a portion of the Indira Gandhi Canal to meet water requirements,
Solar power can be a water-hungry technology, particularly when solar
energy is used to heat water and drive turbines to create electricity – and
water is scarce in Rajasthan. Almost all the villages in the project areas
are dependent on rainwater for what limited agriculture is practiced, though
some parts of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer districts get irrigation water from
the Indira Gandhi Canal.
Many villagers also have tube wells as source of Irrigation water, but
high concentrations of salt make the water of limited use for agriculture
or drinking. How the solar projects may affect wells or access to canal
water remains unclear, though some villages have benefitted from water
lines being run from the canal to solar projects, with pipes installed
to villages as well, or from solar companies digging reservoirs for neighbouring
As solar projects are capital intensive, the government aims to set up “solar
parks” – much like special economic zones, with a range of
tax breaks and other incentives – to make the solar boom more financially
attractive for investors. Land purchases may be subsidised, for instance,
and customs duties lifted on some technologies.
“Large scale projects like solar parks help reduce the cost of investment
by providing common infrastructural facilities, thus reducing the costs
of investment and resulting in cheaper solar power,” Makhija said.
Investment to generate one megawatt of solar power today in the region
costs around 50 million rupees ($930,000), he said. But generating 1,000
megawatts of power cuts the investment cost per megawatt by almost 60 percent,
A planned solar park at Bhadla, spread over 10,000 hectares, aims to generate
3,000 megawatts of power within next five to 10 years.
GETTING POWER WHERE IT’S NEEDED
Building transmission lines to get that new power to users is equally
important, regional officials say.
“Work has already started to establish 1,852 kilometers (1,150 miles)
of transmission lines of varying capacities to connect Bhadla Solar Park
to the national grid”, said L.N. Nimawat, chief project engineer
of Rajasthan Vidyut Prasaran Nigam Limited, developer of the transmission
project. To build such a massive network, the state government will get
financial assistance of up to $500 million from the Asian Development Bank
and the Clean Technology Fund.
The Clean Technology Fund of the Climate Investment Funds channels donor
funds from wealthier countries to developing nations working to install
clean electricity and transport technology.
“The Rajasthan renewable energy transmission investment program
is one of the largest Climate Investment Fund-Clean Technology Fund investment
programs to date,” said Len George, energy specialist with the Asian
Money to help communities near the solar projects may also come from a
new charitable giving law passed in India.
Last year, India became the first country to require corporate giants
to give 2 percent of their net profits to charitable causes under “corporate
social responsibility” legislation. Roughly 8,000 Indian companies
now must make such donations, which has the potential to create a social
spending pot of at least $2 billion a year.
As big companies eye solar projects in Rajasthan, some of that money may
turn into better water, health and education opportunities in villages
near the new projects, officials such as George say.
Backers of the new solar projects predict they will create jobs and new
income for once remote villages. A 2013 report by the International Renewable
Energy Agency says renewable energy projects in India have generated direct
or indirect jobs for nearly 392,000 people, and the renewable power sector
is expected to grow by 27 percent over the next five years, with 40 percent
of that growth in solar power.
Hit by a lack of skilled workers while it built a 50-megawatt solar project
two years ago in Nokh village, Godawari Green Energy Ltd. now has plans
to send two local students a year to an industrial training institute,
with jobs at the plant awaiting them afterward, said Sanjay Pandey, the
company’s assistant general manager.
JOBS AND EDUCATION
Plant officials say providing jobs is a good way to win the support of
local people. “Without the cooperation of local villagers, it is
difficult to operate. Employing the locals at the plants is a long term
investment”, said B.L. Sharma, deputy general manager of Vikram Solar,
a 40 megawatt project in Bap village.
The solar projects have so far produced little in the way of protests
in Rajasthan, apart from some instances where villagers have approached
solar plants demanding jobs or investment in facilities in their communities.
Government schools that once struggled for funding now say they have seen
a turnaround. “Just a few months back the students used to sit on
the floor,” said Bhanwar Singh Gehlot, headmaster of the middle government
school in Sanwara village, between the villages of Bap and Nokh. Now “the
solar companies have provided us with tables, chairs, tiled flooring, drinking
water and fans in the classrooms,” he said.
Virendra, one student at the school, said he now aspires to become an
engineer and work at the solar plant. “The solar company is ready
to fund my technical education and has also assured me a job when I complete
my engineering degree”, the 18-year-old said.
Other residents say they are selling some of their land to solar companies
to buy luxuries they once couldn’t afford. “Soon I will buy
a television and a desert cooler from the money I get,” said Sang
Singh, a resident of Mangaliyon ki Dhani, near Nokh village, who now works
as a driver for a neighbouring solar plant. Other residents are trading
in traditional desert grass huts for stone houses.
Hospitals and health centers also have seen changes as a result of the
solar surge, including women in labour now delivering in air conditioned
and solar-power-lit rooms rather than by torchlight.
“Until last year, the hospital was deprived of the basic facilities
required for local patients and they had to travel several miles to Phalodi
for treatment,” said Dr. M.L. Parihar, a medical officer in the Bap
community health centre. “Despite several requests to the government
to improve the facilities, nothing was done till local solar producers
got concerned about social responsibility and provided airconditioners
and power generators at the community hospital,” he said.
Ashok, a postman in Phalodi, said that in two years the new flow of solar
money “has completed changed the face of the market in Phalodi. With
constructed houses, it has grown to a town from a small village.”