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Opportunties in Solar

The Power of Sun finds mention in Indian epics such as the Mahabharata in which unmarried Kunti bears Sun’s invincible child Karna, one of the central figures in the epic. Bearing children may be the stuff of epics, but there is enough power in the sun to light up thousands of homes. Quantification of the power would yield electrical energy worth over Rs. 300,000 crore. If a mere one percent of this is utilized to light up rural India, ‘solar entrepreneurs’ would be able to rake in Rs. 3,000 crore.

The reason why we are talking rural is because with the present technology and current prices of electrical energy in the country, a full-blown conversion to solar energy would prove very expensive, ranging from five times to a mind-boggling 20 times! Inadequate technology combined with expensive setups, are some of the biggest bottlenecks to the commercialization of products and services based on solar energy. We cannot, of course, bank on fossil fuels, unless we want oil prices to break all barriers!

When the question of covering the last mile crops up, the cost factor is somewhat overshadowed by factors such as infrastructure, ease of setup, portability, durability, etc., which is why solar energy is beginning to get preference over conventional energy sources for remote and rural areas of the country. For once, the bureaucracy is taking action while the iron is still hot. The government is now focusing at both micro and macro levels to bring succor to rural India. At a micro level, it is encouraging the use of solar products such as solar lanterns, torches, heaters, cookers, etc.; and at a macro level, it is laying the groundwork for private participation in providing solar street lighting, and even in constructing solar townships.

Almost all technologies currently available for the conversion and utilization of solar energy can be categorized under the umbrella of photovoltaic (PV) or thermal conversion, out of which the photovoltaic technology is the more popular choice. Solar thermal power, on the other hand, is somewhat cumbersome and its suitability is on a case-to-case basis.

PV technology relies on direct solar-to-electrical energy conversion using solar cells made of silicon wafers doped with required impurities. The average conversion efficiency is around 10-125% although research is on to rev it up to 28%, which is supposed to be the theoretical limit. Solar cells, or PV panels, are available in fixed dimensions and power output. When connected to a switchboard through an inverter with corresponding power specifications, It makes a complete system, PV cells can be used on a small scale using a couple of solar panels, perhaps installed on a rooftop, or on a larger scale through solar farms comprising rows and rows of such panels and connected to a grid.

Solar thermal technology employs the heat energy generated by solar collectors, mostly solar reflectors, to produce steam, which in turn, is used to rotate turbines, thereby producing electricity. Such solar thermal plants are usually grid connected at small or large scales.
Value chain and the offshoots
Opportunities for solar startups lie at every step of the value chain, Under product manufacturing, production and supply of PV cells and the raw material, that is, silicon holds great promise. According to industry estimates, revenues obtained from PV technology are over Rs. 38,000 crore globally and are expected to rise to over Rs. 89,000 crore by 2012. Globally, the demand for PV cells is such that there is shortage of raw material. The global silicon shortage is acting as a necessity that is mothering the invention of alternatives, what have come to be known as plastic solar cells. Research is still underway. To the rescue have also come thin-film technologies. Nano-deposits of semiconductor material on glass and polymer foils are able to simulate the actual solar-electrical energy conversion to quite and extent. Again, research on these alternative technologies is still going on.
Besides these products, an entrepreneur can consider offering system setup and maintenance services to solar farms. The same can also be offered to solar thermal power plants. In addition to the service part, production and supply of solar reflectors, pumps, turbines, heat-exchangers, etc., are all potential opportunities for a solar startup.
The bureaucratic take
The Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA) has come up with several schemes to not only encourage the use of solar-powered systems, but also facilitate businesses in the arena. It has come up with a four-point financing model based on corporate, co-operative, NGO and dealer mechanisms for benefiting end-users and entrepreneurs alike. The PV Pumping Program provides opportunities for startup financial and solar companies to act as intermediaries for offering solar products to rural users under specific leverage schemes to combat the high cost of initial setup.
The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) provided financial assistance to the installation of around 33 grids of solar photovoltaic power plants, producing around 2.5 million units of electricity in the country annually. Private companies generating power in solar power plants and feeding to grids are offered production based incentives under the Grid Interactive Solar Power Generation Scheme, Companies engaged in R&D in solar power are also offered several subsidies and tax exemptions.
Solar startups
Several solar startups in India are offering solutions for rural lighting and electrification. SELCO Solar Light, founded in 1995, was one of the first solar startups to offer customized rural lighting solutions to families living below poverty line. It has also tied-up with several banks to facilitate easy financing to enable the rural poor to avail of its lighting solutions. SELCO’s business model is unique in facilitating solar businesses and further spreading the net of solar entrepreneurship in the country.
Solar India Solutions, headed by A Chandra Sekhar is another startup offering innovative solutions to the Indian populace. “We had recently completed four residential installations in the country the first and the only ones in India till date”. Says Chandra Sekhar. It is offering solar lighting and space heating and cooling solutions to the rural and urban population.
Tata BP Solar, a joint-venture between Tata Power and BP Solar, offers both large – and small-scale solutions in solar energy. Being one of the largest companies globally operating in the solar segment, it has its own manufacturing and assembly plant. Its solutions include home and street lighting, pump-operation, heating and cooling, power systems for railways and offshore rigs, etc.
Cosmos Ignite Innovations, a startup combining social entrepreneurship with clean technology came up with Cosmos Ignite, a solar-powered torch. It’s not a run-of-the-mill torch though. With a one watt white LED and microprocessor-controlled, it can be used as a wall, mobile or wide-angle light source. With a reach as far as the remote villages in Panama and South Africa, solar power has truly changed lives at a micro level.
Nature of engagement
Solar products
Small and medium
Solar farms/power Plants
Medium and large
Private and public-private partnership
Solar townships
Public-private partnership
Solar energy for rural India
• Portability
• Ease of setup
• Possible on smaller scales
• Can be stand-alone or grid connected
Opportunity value chain offshoots
Solar production in the country
Potential production capacity
Amount of solar energy India receives annually
5000 trillion kwh
Average conversion efficiency
Assumption: Percentage utilization is 0.1%
Amount of solar energy converted into electrical energy 750 trillion kwh
Amount of solar energy utilized annually 0.75 trillion kwh
Cost per unit electrical energy in India 4 Rs
Total cost of electrical energy than can be produced from solar energy 3 trillion Rs
Assumption: 1% of the total potential is utilized for the rural populace  
Potential size of business out of solar energy for rural India 0.03 trillion Rs
  300 crore Rs
Power plant economics
Solar power plants
10 MW solar power plant with generation cost at Rs 15 per unit
Figure released by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy:
  1. Cost of setting up 1 MW: Rs 16 crore to Rs 20 crore
  2. Cost of generation per unit: Rs 12 to Rs 15
Cost of setting up 1 MW plant
20 crore Rs
Cost of generation per unit (1 KWh) 15 Rs
  1. No. of daylight hours: 10
  2. Average no. of sunny days a year: 200
Generation cost annually 30 crore Rs
Four-point solar financing model under IREDA
Solar power plants
Corporate model
Leasing and hire-purchasing
Co-operative model
Rental and leasing
NGO model
Leasing, rental
Dealer model
Direct sales to end-users
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