A generous, concentrated push

A man next to a solar power plant, doing a thumbs up sign. Photo.India to provide boost to concentrated solar power and concentrated solar technology, hoping solar energy use will intensify.

With the launch of India’s first concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in November 2013, the country seems to be moving out of its renewable energy comfort zone, established over the last few years. So far, the use of concentrated solar power in India was on the back burner, but with this 150 MW plant, the tide might be turning in favour of CSP.

Set up by Godawari Green Energy Ltd, the plant is India’s first grid-connected commercial unit, using concentrated solar energy to generate steam. Another 150 MW was commissioned during the course of 2013, which Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) officials believe will bring CSP capacity in India to 200 MW before the end of the current financial year (March 2014). It is a huge jump for the country, considering that under the first national solar mission the government had aimed to establish 500 MW of CSP capacity in three years, but only 50 MW was actually commissioned.

Since the launch of the National Solar Mission in 2010, use of solar energy in India has been focussed on the use of PV technology—the Union Ministry of Non-conventional and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has succeeded in installing over 2,000 MW. The government aims to cross 20 GW of solar energy capacity by 2022. Whereas the more efficient CSP technology had not gained many takers so far, it would be impossible to achieve the capacity target without taking CSP into consideration.

Ministry officials think so, too. They believe the newly introduced subsidies and other benefits will help promote CSP on a large scale, from 2014 on. Former Director of the Solar Energy Centre Bibek Bandyopadhyay says, ‘Photovoltaic (PV) has a limited life-span and its module efficiency decreases with each passing year – this is not a problem with concentrated solar, and developers are learning now.’ He envisages a rapid growth in the concentrated solar sector in the coming years.

The government is there to help. It recently announced a UNDP – GEF supported project on ‘Market Development & Promotion of Solar Concentrator based Process Heat Applications in India’, to awaken the interest of developers. The objective of the project is to promote and commercialize CSP for industrial process heat applications in India. The government intends to facilitate 45,000 m² of installed solar collector area by March 2017 through demonstration and replication projects. Tenders have been released for procurement and supply of radiation and performance measuring instruments/equipment to establish test set-ups for CSP.

Why so slow

The slow pick-up of CSP and concentrated solar technology (CST) is largely blamed on heavy input costs, lack of appropriate technology—including networks—and awareness among both private project developers and government officials. Many of the reasons listed by officials and developers appear to be small speed bumps rather than road blocks. Tarun Kapoor, joint secretary, MNRE, is confident ‘The hurdles can all be over come if developers and users show interest and, to bump start that, we are trying to spread awareness on the technology.’

Among the long list of factors working against the use of concentrated solar, input cost tops the list. Former Director Bandyopadhyay says CSP and CST due to intensive capital technology have been harder to promote. It costs close to Rs 6–8 crore to set up a PV plant of 1 MW capacity; the same under CSP requires Rs 14–16 crore. And with PV panels proliferating – imported and indigenously manufactured—CSP adoption has been slow. Also, point out ministry officials, the PV market is considered more mature in India for it has also been highly subsidised by the flow of panels from China.

Sameer Satija of Clique Solar – one of the indigenous pioneers of CST – says that unlike PV panels that seem to have become ready-to-go solutions, with hundreds of local enterprises providing them, CSP and CST require scale to be economical. Large scale projects imply higher costs and therefore developers shy away. Adding to CSP’s drawback is the fact that India does not have a single manufacturer of the steel required to create concentrated solar equipment like the dish.

It’s negative perception, really. ‘As a result, at Clique solar we have spent a large part of our resources and energy to spread awareness on the technology,’ says Satija. The conventional perception of solar energy being an answer to electricity woes—and not necessarily energy shortage, which has other facets like steam and heat—is still prevalent. Agreeing with this outlook, MNRE joint Secretary Kapoor, explains how: ‘Businesses still perceive the use of renewable energy— especially solar—as a solution to shortage of power and nothing more. The common perception of concentrated solar technology is that it is a waste because, first, solar radiation is captured to generate heat and that is then converted to power.’ Elaborating on the unwillingness of both developers and users to think out of the box, the Joint secretary cites the example of how CSP and CST use needs to be ‘unconventional’.

A large part of the energy needs in industry in India are of heat and steam, not necessarily power. This makes Indian industry apt for CST use. Use of CSP and CST requires integration with existing industrial processes. It needs customisation; lack of that has resulted in limited use of concentrated solar, avers Bandyopadhyay. He adds that as CST and CSP both require access to direct instant radiation, which is limited in India, and also need water, industry is taking its time to adopt the technology.

But with a focussed push for CSP and CST the Ministry is hoping to soon change the tide.

Radiant future

Despite the heavy costs, Satija explains, the growing awareness regarding CST and CSP is helping his business. Very little data is available on CST installations in the country, as most are off-grid, very small scale, and developed only by private players. A few private players, through initiative as well as institutional support, have established successful models, such as the Akshardham Temple Kitchen Clique solar set up in 2012. The unit generates enough steam to cook an equivalent of 3,500–4,000 meals daily.

Satija, working in the sector since 2006, believes customer attitude is now changing: ‘So far, we had to go to and first explain the technology and then try and convince users to set up CST plants… over the last year we have had people coming to us and asking how they can use CST.’ He adds with the high potential in the Indian market this is an apt time to promote CSP/CST. He claims that of the total energy requirement in heavy industry—say, steel or cement—60% is for process heat while the remaining is for electricity. He says ‘this can easily be supplied through the use of CST’. In 2013, Clique Solar commissioned 3 major projects, bringing the total number of concentrated installations since 2006 to 18. They are expecting to close the deal on another 6 projects before the end of this financial year. ‘The shift in consumer thinking is evident from the fact that 70 per cent of our projects are now geared towards process heating,’ says Satija.

Kapoor thinks once India Inc shifts towards more efficient energy use, CSP and CST will find many takers. ‘The automobile, pharmaceutical and hotel sectors have high potential for the use of concentrated solar but are completely untapped in India at present,’ he points out. Substantiating the ministry’s claims is Bandyopadhyay, who explains how concentrated solar is very relevant in today’s day and age of fuel shortage. ‘Industries with heavy coal and other conventional fossil fuel consumption for the use of generating heat can easily shift to concentrated solar.’

Plus, the Government’s Perform Achieve and Trade (PAT) scheme may further help in promoting concentrated solar. The scheme lists a set of energy standards for heavy industries like steel, mining cement—all with high energy consumption. These standards are certified by the Indian Bureau of Energy Efficiency and if a particular firm surpasses the required target, energy saving certificates can be traded in a manner similar to that of carbon trading. Bandyopadhyay believes the incentives being offered for energy efficiency will help concentrated solar.

MNRE has announced a 30% subsidy on project costs, plus there is the 10% subsidy provided by the UNDP –GEF project on detailed project reports, to developers who wish to promote CSP. To boost R&D in concentrated solar, the ministry has announced that it will generously support—with up to 50% of the project cost—anyone interested in bringing already tested technology from outside the country and test its compatibility.

Anyone interested?