Solar mission target pushed back, financing strategy dropped

By Joydeep Gupta, IANS,

New Delhi: India has put off until 2022, from the targeted 2020, its plan to produce 20,000 MW from solar power, even as it postponed Saturday the launch of the country’s ambitious solar energy mission.

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A key financing strategy in the plan has also been dropped, according to a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, after the ministries of coal and power opposed a proposal to levy a cess of four paise a tonne of coal mined for research and development on solar energy.

In his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised that the solar energy mission would be launched Nov 14. But an official spokesman said Friday night: “The mission will be launched as soon as the approval of the government to the recommendations has been obtained, which is expected shortly.”

He was referring to recommendations by members of the PM’s council when it met Oct 26 to approve the solar energy mission.

“The recommendations of the mission have been finalised and an implementation plan has been formulated after a series of consultations within government as well as other stakeholders,” the spokesman added.

Bureaucrats are now talking of Nov 19 as a probable launch date for the mission, whose highlight is to increase hundredfold the current output of 200 MW through solar energy.

Two major changes have been made since the last draft of the mission document was made public, members of the council said on condition of anonymity. One was to push back the target date for generating 20,000 MW a year from solar power to 2022 from 2020, to bring it in line with India’s five-year plan cycle.

More important, the section on putting a cess on coal used for power generation in order to fund the solar mission has been dropped, more than one member of the council told IANS. “Without this, how are we going to finance this mission?” one of them wondered.

The main bottleneck in spreading solar energy today is cost. While it costs Rs.3-4 to generate one unit of electricity from coal, it costs Rs.14 to do so from solar photovoltaic cells. If various subsidies given to the coal industry now are removed, the cost will go up to Rs.5-6, still well below the cost from solar power.

This does not take into account the other costs of using coal — respiratory diseases caused by pollutants released when coal is mined and then burnt, the destruction of soil associated with the mining, the effects of climate change caused by coal burning in terms of reduced farm output and more frequent and more severe droughts, floods and storms.

While there is no official calculation of these costs, an environmental economist has estimated them to total Rs.4 per unit. That would bring the real cost of producing electricity from coal to Rs.9-10 per unit, still below the cost of doing so from solar power.

But solar power technology has been improving rapidly. Till a few years ago, it cost Rs.27 to produce one unit of electricity from solar photovoltaic cells.

While the renewable energy industry is excited about the mission, it is not happy with the planning process.

“We are being asked to increase solar energy production hundredfold in the next 13 years, from 200 MW to 20,000 MW by 2022, but we have not been consulted on how it is to be done,” a senior executive of a firm making solar photovoltaic cells told IANS.

(Joydeep Gupta can be contacted at [email protected])