By Archita Bhatta and Sujit Chakraborty
NEW DELHI (Alertnet) - If it wants to keep its economy growing, India needs a lot of energy. At the moment, it is struggling to find it, experts say.
The strain on the country's electricity grid means blackouts are common. Last July, the worst in recent history left more than 700 million people without power for two days. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that India's energy consumption will increase by 3.3 percent per year for the next two decades.
To help meet its energy needs, India in 2010 launched an ambitious solar-power project that it hoped would both feed the grid and electrify the 30 percent of the country that isn't connected. But only three years on, progress is stalling, experts say.
Thanks to a combination of economic constraints and technology problems, the project is unlikely to meet its goal of harnessing 20,000 megawatts of renewable power by 2022, which threatens to take the shine out of India's solar dream, experts say.
The project, called the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, is divided into three phases. The first aims to install 1,300 megawatts of solar power generating systems by March 2013. So far, the mission is on target. But the plan to add another 3,000 megawatts by 2017 is being derailed by poorly performing equipment, experts say.
India's solar project developers import much of the technology they use, in part because equipment available internationally can provide a solar efficiency - the percentage of solar energy that the panels convert into electricity - of up to 17 percent. But anecdotal evidence suggests that systems in India can achieve only 14 percent at best, experts say.
But renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, which are mostly imported from the United States, Europe and China, are facing some problems in India because some are manufactured for sub-zero temperatures and dust free environments, said Indrani Barpujari, a research associate at The Energy Research Institute (TERI), based in New Delhi.
Her institute’s research suggests that in the hot, dusty air that is common in parts of India, the systems are struggling to generate the kind of power they do in other conditions.
Other experts dismiss the idea that the equipment is to blame.
“There are many types of technologies available," said Bibek Bandopadhyay, head of the Solar Energy Centre of the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. “If there is inefficiency, it may be because bad technology has been imported by some developers."
Arunabha Ghosh, head of the non-profit Council of Energy, Environment and Water, agreed that “it is not true to suggest that environmental conditions in producing countries differ and so the usage of the equipment in India will reduce efficiency.”
In most cases, “there are various technological options from, which a developer can choose what is best for his or her given site,” he said.
Ghosh did, however, acknowledge having heard complaints from the industry about underperforming equipment.
"There are no studies over a substantial period of time to arrive at any clear conclusion," he said. "What we have done is suggest to the government that all (solar) power plants be monitored for at least two years to assess the efficiency levels, so that we can see whether there is a problem and what we might do about it."
ONE TECHNOLOGY – OR THE OTHER?
In the view of some experts, the problem is as much political as it is technological. The Indian solar industry’s reliance on foreign equipment, they say, is a result of government policy designed to protect the country's solar-technology manufacturers but now potentially hurting them instead.
Solar panels, for instance, come in two types: crystalline silicon and thin film. Crystalline-silicon technology is the more established of the two and the most commonly used around the world; the newer thin-film technology is cheaper but significantly less efficient.
As part of the National Solar Mission, India's government requires that 30 percent of the content of all crystalline-silicon solar technology used in the country be sourced or manufactured domestically. However, India does not have adequate facilities to produce the photovoltaic cells that are at the heart of the equipment.
"That kind of technology needs silica to the purity of (almost 100 percent)," said Sujay Basu, former head of the Department of Energy Studies at Jadavpur University. "This calls for hugely sanitised manufacturing units which we have yet to develop."
As a result, Indian manufacturers have to import the crystalline-silicon cells that they use to make solar panels and modules.
For many of India's solar-project developers, however, it is easier and cheaper to avoid the domestic content requirement by instead importing equipment that uses thin-film technology. Thin film is exempt from the mandate because at the time the solar mission was launched, no company in India was making it.
Thin film has a solar efficiency of just 7 or 8 percent and needs to be installed over a larger area up to six times larger than with crystalline-silicon technology to generate the same amount of power.
India now makes the thin film. But China and other countries that have experienced a slowing in demand for solar power technology are selling thin-film equipment to India at slashed prices, a practice known as dumping that makes it impossible for domestic makers to compete.
India's Directorate General of Anti-Dumping and Allied Duties is currently examining a complaint by the Solar Equipment Manufacturer’s Association. For now, though, thin film is becoming the technology of choice for India's solar projects.
Many experts believe that the National Solar Mission can still achieve its goal using the less efficient equipment as long as more land is dedicated to solar projects. But in a country as densely populated as India, vast expanses of land are hard to come by.
“The issue is what technology we get at what cost," said Bhaskar Deol, spokesman for the India Initiative on Climate Change and Clean Energy of the U.S.-based Natural Resource Defence Council.
Archita Bhatta and Sujit Chakraborty are science and environmental journalists based in New Delhi.