Crunch time for India’s solar industry

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It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Winston Churchill was referring to Russia, but his much-reused quote could just as easily apply to India’s nascent solar industry. Shrouded in secrecy, the state of play on the subcontinent is exciting as it is confusing.

And solving this riddle is far from simple. Last December, amidst much fanfare, the Indian Government unveiled the recipients of the first 620MW of projects in its snappily titled Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM). However, in the intervening 12 months, further details about this not-insignificant number of installations have been conspicuous by their absence.

A few weeks ago, the silence was finally broken with the underwhelming news that more than one third of the projects handed out in the first round of auctions were unlikely to make the January deadline. And news about those that would make the cut was, unsurprisingly, not forthcoming. Nevertheless, governments, at both national and state level, have ploughed ahead with their bullish rhetoric.

Narenda Modi, Gujarat’s Chief Minister, has already claimed his state will one day become the world’s solar capital, and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy's Bharat Bhargava has added fuel to the fire by claiming that by 2017 capacity could scale 10GW.

While some would advise against such chutzpah from a country whose total installations stood somewhere around the 50MW mark in late September, the confidence-boosting cocktail of high irradiance levels, enticing state incentives and the popularity of the aforementioned JNNSM has seen conservative forecasts thrown out of the window.

And why not? Major industry names, such as SunEdison, juwi solar, AES Solar, Conergy, Gehrlicher Solar and Enfinity, and US development banks have already ignored potential headaches over bankability and finance in the belief that India is indeed the future.

And, cynicism aside, there are some promising signs. Just last month, Moser Baer finished work on India’s first installation of note, a 30MW system in Gunthawada, Gujarat, and more installations are on the horizon; strategic consulting firm Bridge to India has reported that a further 150MW is due to come online in the next month and a half.

Driving much of this growth is likely to be the western state of Gujarat. With the country’s fastest-growing economy and a generous feed-in tariff, Gujarat is ideally placed to install the PV systems that will help catapult India’s solar industry from minor to major league.

Gujarat was one of the earliest states to recognize PV’s potential and launched its solar policy one year before the JNNSM was even announced. Initially the levelized tariff of INR13.30 (US$0.33) per kWh and INR10.54 (US$0.38) per kWh for CSP over 25 years was undercut by the JNNSM. However, the huge interest from developers in the JNNSM led to competitive bidding for projects and a subsequent fall in tariff rate. A fall that took it below the rate in Gujarat.

Suddenly, Gujarat became a far more attractive proposition to developers. Longer project timelines and a significantly higher tariff in the first 12 years piqued interest further. In addition to Gunthawada, the state is already the location of several smaller-scale projects between 1MW and 5MW and, if India lives up to the hype, project sizes are likely to grow tenfold over the coming years.

However, this is a big if. The next few months will reveal a lot about what the future holds for solar on the subcontinent. If January comes and goes with no noticeable surge in the number of completed projects, then the questions surrounding the industry will continue to be asked  But should anywhere close to the reported 150MW come online then this will go a long way to convincing the doubting Thomases. Either way, it will be an interesting few months.

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