Power of the Sun
On the 22nd February 2012, the Government of Gujarat announced the commissioning of a 1 MW solar power plant. Subsequently, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, in an elaborate ceremony, dedicated this to the nation. A tiny power plant should not really have made news, but this project was exceptional. Undertaken jointly by the Gujarat State Electricity Corporation and the Sardar Sarovar Narbada Nigam, the project involved the construction of solar cells over a 750-metre stretch of the Sanand branch of the canal in the Mehsana district. The project was completed in six months with a capacity to generate 1.6 million units of electricity annually. This is fed to the state grid. In addition, it actually prevents evaporation of water from the canal.
Evidently, generating 1 MW of solar power involves 5-6 acres of land. The unique feature about using the canal network, and of this Gujarat has no shortage – over 19,000 kilometers of it – is that costs and complications of land acquisition can be avoided. The Gujarat government intends to extend this success across the canal network in what engineers believe is a perfectly scalable model. Going forward the idea would be to use about 10% of the canal grid to generate about 2,500 MW of solar power and effectively, eliminate the need of 11,000 acres of land that would have been required.
Gujarat has been going gung-ho on solar energy. Only recently did the state Government commission 600 MW of solar power across eleven districts. This includes a 214 MW Solar Power Park, the largest such generation facility, at a single location, in Asia. A private power producer announced plans for a 2.5 MW rooftop project in Gandhinagar, the state capital. This initiative is a part of a larger scheme that involves placing solar panels on rooftops of 50 government buildings and another 500 privately owned ones, eventually generating 5 MW of electricity. If the model works, the government intends to emulate it in other cities including Rajkot, Baroda, Surat and Bhavnager. Gujarat at present generates 66% of India’s solar power and has demonstrated the rare ability of actually implementing plans it announces.
Solar energy will do wonders in the years to come and India – specifically Gujarat – seems to be on the right track. For instance since 2004, over 3000 villages have been ‘electrified’ using photovoltaic cells and this will accelerate in the coming years, as set up costs continue to fall. Local grid clusters to distribute electricity will replace costly centralised national and regional ones, which are harder, and more time consuming to implement. Orissa intends to provide electricity to 3,000 villages in the coming three years, using solar energy. Then there are other applications that have found encouraging demand – solar water pumps for instance. Used in irrigation and drinking water, especially in rural areas, some 10,000 are already in use. Cities like Poona and Bangalore have mandated builders and new home-owners to install solar water heaters. The State Electricity Board estimates that in Bangalore, these heaters generate/save about 300 MW of electricity each day.
Solar energy struggled a bit, but now seems to be finally taking off with diverse applications. In many ways the successes of Gujarat will provide encouragement to other states and many are keen to follow.