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Mr. Ivan Saha, President & Chief Technical Officer, Vikram Solar

12 Aug 2015

Large scale storage solutions needed for uninterrupted 24X7 solar power.

Ivan Saha, President & Chief Technical Officer, currently heads the Technology team of Vikram Solar and is responsible for research, innovation and new product development. He speaks to InfralinePlus on the challenges solar industry faces and the possible solutions that can expedite the growth of the sector. Excerpts.

Solar energy is touted to be the next big revolution in India’s energy space. How do you view the excitement among stakeholders. Is the target of 100,000 MW by 2022 achievable?

We feel that the target is attainable. But it will ultimately depend upon the key enablers, who should be in sync with each other.

Finance is the most critical factor to achieve the target. Proper funding & allocation of financial resources are absolute necessary to execute the projects. In addition to it, reducing the project completion time, setting up proper infrastructure, special incentives for solar energy projects, with support from State as well as Central Government, ease of access to project financing for solar energy projects, prompt and fast allotment of land, separate capital subsidy over and above central subsidy on the project cost for grid tied, off grid & roof-top solar systems, setting up panels for single window clearance and fast track approval of solar power projects. Along with the above, skilled manpower is a critical necessity.

Since 2010, when MNRE launched JNNSM, India has grown from almost 0 GW solar capacity to over 4.1 GW in mere 5 years. Key strategic decisions like the abolition of anti-dumping duties have helped the new government gain the industry’s confidence.

There is another school of thought that introduction of Solar power may upset the whole grid, as solar power disappears when the sun sets, just as electricity demand rises to its daily peak, with homes switching on lights and stoves. Meeting peak needs will require a big cushion of idle thermal power during the day, a huge hidden cost of solar power.

This is a myth doing rounds that during the night when the power requirement increases drastically, solar power is not suitable or can’t meet the peak demand. Though globally solar power plants are getting commissioned more & more, still we can say that we are on the very early stage and lots can be achieved from setting up large scale solar parks to commission innovative utility scale solar power plants and meet the ever increasing power demand. The critical path to uninterrupted 24X7 solar power is the development of large scale storage solutions, on which a tremendous amount of work is going on globally. The interim solution is to use an intelligent mix of renewables and traditional power sources. As for example, wind & solar in the same plant can give a night and day solution, respectively.

How long do you think Solar power would become sustainable or its pricing be on par with other sources of energy generation? Given the financial mess most of the state electricity boards, how can they purchase expensive power?

Solar industry has already reached the grid parity in the states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra in terms of LT power for the industrial use, diesel replacement, etc. More rapid deployment of solar will happen once the other states also reach grid parity for the residential sector. Recently record low bids for solar contracts in India has started to happen with foreign EPC project developers winning tender with a bid of INR 5.05 (US$0.080) per kWh for a 50 MW solar plant in Madhya Pradesh. At first glance these prices sound very far-fetched, but at the same time reverse bidding in India has always been in a way that has attracted low prices. With the current euphoria in the Indian solar sector, this is another step forward and good for the solar industry in general and will help India to reach grid parity sooner, may be within the next 5 years.

However, there needs to be strict moderation of quality standards of components in these projects. Lower cost should not be synonymous with inferior quality. And with the poor financial condition of most of the state electricity boards, to achieve grid parity faster, compromising on quality & planning projects with unrealistically low cost will result in disrupt the growth of the solar sector. ROI varies from one state to another state depending on the specific yield from solar, electricity tariff, power purchase agreement (PPA), evacuation charges & availability of other required infrastructures. State governments need to infuse more money in the electricity boards to help them to purchase the solar power. The amount of money allocated in the individual state budgets are still very less, which needs to be revised.

There seems to be competition from China in terms of pricing of PV cells. Does Chinese manufacturers have advantage vis-a-vis Indian companies because they have better incentives for manufacturing?

It is true that India currently lags behind in Solar module and cell manufacturing capacity vis a vis to China.

But there were some reasons behind it. Solar module manufacturing in India started its journey long back, but only recently with the positive initiatives from the Central Government & the Make in India campaign got a positive ambience & supporting environment to flourish. Indian solar companies started solar module manufacturing more than 20 – 25 yeas back but they have been plagued by lack of scale, zero manufacturing incentives and an almost non-existent demand in the domestic markets. In late 2000s a few hundreds of MW of cell and module capacities were set up with modern technologies but they were quickly outpaced and out bidded by the GW scale Chinese juggernaut. The Chinese manufacturers’ used to get huge incentive from their Republic Government which helped them to surge ahead.

But today, the scenario is changing fast. MNRE along with other nodal agencies like RECI, IREDA, etc have introduced a few game changing policies, opening the market for more investment in both module manufacturing and cell manufacturing along with announcing large scale MW projects & solar parks. The Indian solar market is fast changing with parity based projects gaining momentum. To minimize the demand-supply gap, the market has been created to increase the manufacturing capacity of solar cells and modules in the country. So, today while India is targeting to achieve 100 GW of solar power by 2022 and announcing huge solar projects across the country and attracting huge investments by big Indian & International groups in module manufacturing sector, domestic players are also enhancing their production capacity.

Kindly share details of some of the ongoing projects and how would it change the energy dynamics of the country?

In the last 12 months, we achieved quite a few milestones in terms of commissioning large scale MW projects along with installing projects in so called difficult terrains.

  • 1.Successfully installed and commissioned 48 MWp solar plant at Kachaliya, Madhya Pradesh.
  • 2.100 kW solar power plant at McLeod Russel Tea estate, Attarekhat, Assam.
  • 3.100 kW solar power plant at Dibrugarh University, Assam.
  • 4.250 kW rooftop solar power plant at Auckland Jute Mill, West Bengal.
  • 5.10 kW floating solar power plant at New Town Kolkata, West Bengal.

Also work is currently going on some MW projects across India including some very prestigious rooftop kW projects. Vikram Solar did the 1st rooftop installation at an international airport in India, the Cochin International Airport, Kerala, which recently has been announced to be the 1st in the world to be powered solely on solar energy.

In continuance with our expertise in installing rooftop solar plant at an airport, currently work is going on for rooftop installations at Calicut International Airport, Kerala & Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, Kolkata, West Bengal.

In addition to the above mentioned projects, we have commissioned a total of more than 12 kW projects across India.

States too now seem to compete against each other in going after Solar power installations. What benefit do you see for consumers?

This is actually a very encouraging scenario for the solar sector in India. We always feel that the biggest challenge is to have a general conducive environment for solar in a country like India - financial incentives, regulatory framework, technological expertise, least-cost business models and uniform policy. Government of India has recently set state-wise targets for installation of grid-connected solar rooftop systems as part of its plan to achieve 40 GW of rooftop solar power by 2022. States with the highest targets include: Maharashtra (4.7GW), Uttar Pradesh (4.3GW), Tamil Nadu (3.5GW), Gujarat (3.2GW), Karnataka (2.3GW), Rajasthan (2.3GW), Madhya Pradesh (2.2GW), West Bengal (2.1GW). The State nodal agencies, RECI (Renewable Energy Corporation of India) and State power distribution companies will be in charge of implementation of this rooftop solar programme. The solar industry is going through a transformation phase and every month, one state or the other is coming up with their regulatory policies and announcing large scale MW projects along with rooftop policies in line with the target to achieve 100 GW of solar energy by 2022. As the end result, this will invariably benefit the end consumers as they will also get an option to be part of the green & clean energy revolution.

What is your long term strategy. Will you continue to focus equally on manufacturing and EPC?

Vikram Solar is determined to be a market leader in the solar energy segment bringing energy closer to the people of India and other parts of the world .Vikram Solar, which is already forward integrated, is planning on backward integration by adding a 100 MW solar cell manufacturing line by end of 2016 to cater to the DCR requirement of JNNSM Phase. Also, we are planning to expand our module line from existing 200 MW to 500 MW by September, 2015 & reach 1.2 GW by end of 2018. However, within the multi crystalline technologies, newer technologies such as PERC is seeing the light of the day which can produce >17% module efficiency as compared with 15% as in the case with multi crystalline. We have a long term strategy to invest in PERC technology.

We want to equally focus on our EPC segment and plan to increase the current installed capacity of 120 MW to 500 MW by the end of 2016 & reach 1 GW by 2018.

Our current market domain is Asia, Europe and Americas . In the next 2 years , we are expecting to get more involved in the African, Australian & South American Market.

You have presence in the US and Europe too, what kind of growth do you see for yourself from those markets.

The solar sector is very dynamic today and as a key player in the industry we need to be active and agile. Our Group has established itself internationally over the past decades and Vikram Solar is now building on the strong global footprint. Our team thoroughly evaluates the target markets and assesses high potential regions for solar PV projects. In the past year, we have built a strong international sales team, which is analyzing market trends and demand across the globe carefully. We have been participating in various international trade shows such as Intersolar Europe, Intersolar North America, Solar Power International North America, which has helped us to get insights of the European & US market.

Europe is an important market for us globally. We were able to build a strong customer base there and are supplying a significant amount of modules to the European market. Last year, we entered the UK PV market which is a big step for us.

The US market is another interesting geography for us. Vikram Solar – as an India based producer of high quality PV modules – has great prospect to gain market share here. With new products based on PERC technology & 72 cell modules, CAN/CSA certification for Canada, and UL certification along with our Tier 1 status by Bloomberg, we are very positive that we can position Vikram Solar as a strong and reliable business partner in the Americas.