India enjoys an average of 250-300 sunny days each year—that’s some 2,300 to 3,200 hours of valuable, carbon-friendly sun rays. Not only that, but states such as Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat in particular also have plentiful land ripe for solar farm development. Together, these five states alone were estimated by India’s National Institute of Solar Energy in late 2014 to account for more than 400 gigawatts (GW) of a total national potential capacity of nearly 750 GW.
Figures such as these have seen India’s solar ambitions crystallize dramatically in a bid to satisfy the demands of its rapidly growing economy and population.
In 2015, the government of India announced plans to deliver 100 GW of solar-generated power by 2022—a bold move given its capacity then stood at just 2.9 GW. It further pushed the boundaries by announcing an equally ambitious split in its 100 GW target of 60 percent utility-scale plants with the 40 percent balance to come from rooftop panels and other smaller, off-grid projects.
However, a shift in favor of the financial competitiveness of utility solar has now seen a revision of India’s 2022 utility/rooftop percentage split to 80/20. There will also be a new wave of 50 “ultra-mega” solar parks under the revised program—each delivering a massive 500 megawatts (MW) or more in an effort to meet the new utility target.
This policy change is against a backdrop showing that although India achieved only around half of its 12 GW capacity target for fiscal year 2016/17—a significant 5.5 GW increase nevertheless—a record low bid in mid-2017 at a Rajasthan plant took the price down to 2.62 rupees (4 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour. This significant fall from a previous low of 4.34 rupees announced in January 2016 is expected to encourage further utility-scale solar growth as 2022 fast approaches.
Rising to the challenges
While falling bids may showcase to investors that cheap solar power is viable in India, the shrinking tariff is also squeezing margins to pile on pressure for plant developers and owners. Two further key factors are also adding to the challenge of expanding the country’s solar generation infrastructure.
The first factor concerns the Indian government’s stipulation of one year instead of two
for delivery of a typical solar farm installation in a bid to speed up the building of new capacity. The second reflects the fact that land acquisition is the responsibility of the developer for all non-government projects. The complexity this creates is compounded by the need for social impact assessment that requires consent from 70 percent of affected farmers in the case of public-private partnership projects and 80 percent when the land is acquired for private companies. It’s a hurdle made even tougher to clear given that the consent process can take up to three years.
Taking a lead from technology
But whatever forces are at work shaping India’s demand for cheaper solar power, it’s, of course, the technology itself—and the way it is managed—that’s also a key growth driver.
At the heart of GE’s offering is its pioneering 1,500-volt inverter. The extra voltage it packs over and above the “industry standard” 1,000-volt system still widely used on the sub-continent delivers greater energy output per square meter. What’s more, it also reduces system and operational costs by up to 3 percent and 15 percent respectively—an attraction that has helped secure GE an important share of India’s growing 1,500-volt market, which is currently predominated by 1,000-volt systems.
India’s 1.5-kilovolt revolution began with GE’s installation of 140 MW of its powerful LV5 inverters spread across two Solairedirect’s sites in Rajasthan—the first inverters of this voltage to be delivered in the country. This Engie subsidiary coupled its purchase with a 25-year, long-term service agreement with GE that provides for all parts, repairs and maintenance that may be required at both plants. The combined package is aimed to improve the project’s bankability as well as reduced total cost of ownership.
Forward looking, GE’s digital asset performance management will further boost plant efficiency by providing intuitive analytics tools for a secure, real-time view of a solar plant’s operation and maintenance, plus remote command of plant set-points. By comparing real-time and historical data to diagnose performance variation more quickly, faults can be resolved even before they occur.
Bringing all pieces of innovation and capabilities into one basket—a full engineering, procurement and construction approach that includes financing, plant equipment and control, grid integration and digital solutions, exceptionally also extends to the photovoltaic modules themselves—GE’s integrated system package offers the peace of mind of a coherent, plant-wide development strategy. At the same time, GE’s unique, long-term commitment to maintain inverters and other key plant assets is proving especially popular with those larger developers in India that are looking for long-term service stability.
GE’s service culture and end-to-end care menu act as true differentiators in a market now attracting ever more players. The result is reduced risk, cost and complexity alongside a huge boost in efficiency using GE’s 1,500-volt invertor technology and taking Indian solar—and other sun-powered projects elsewhere in the world—to a whole new level.