The recent notification of the Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020, by the Government, marks a welcome change in policy focus in the area of solar energy and will give a fillip to the hitherto largely neglected area of rooftop solar power generation by private individuals and small consumers. India has admittedly made massive strides in the renewable energy space, although thermal power continues to enjoy a dominant share of over 63 per cent of the total installed power generation capacity of over 240 gigawatts (GW).
As of December 2020, installed solar power capacity had crossed the 36GW mark. Compared to the installed capacity of a mere 11 megawatts in 2010, this marks a stunning 3,000-fold increase in capacity in just a decade. India is now one of the world’s fastest growing solar markets and is already placed third in the world. Commendable as this achievement is, the capacity pales in comparison to the potential available.
According to the Ministry of Renewable Energy, over 5,000 trillion kilowatt-hours of solar energy is incident upon the country, with most parts receiving 4-7 kWH per square metre per day. However, for that potential to be converted to reality, India will have to make full use of the surface area available for solar power generation, which is already a small fraction of the total landmass area available, since large tracts are covered by water bodies or forests, used for agriculture, roads and other civil infrastructure and, of course, human habitation.
Of this, rooftop solar panels – erected on the roofs of buildings and other civil constructions – offer the greatest scope for tapping into this policy. India’s solar energy plan has targeted the addition of 40,000 MW of rooftop solar capacity by 2022, but with barely a year left, only about 6,000 MW of capacity has actually been installed. Even this is almost entirely from large-scale installations on the roofs of commercial and industrial establishments like malls, educational institutions and factories, which have large rooftop areas available. Retail or domestic installations are still minuscule.
One big reason for this has been the absence of clear policy directives on how consumers, who also have the capacity to generate power and feed it into the grid – or prosumers as they are called – are to be treated. It is this gap which has been sought to be addressed by the new rules. Under this, prosumers have been recognised for the first time. The rules provide for ‘gross metering’ for rooftop solar plants with capacity of over 10kW, while those with less than 10kw capacity will be offered ‘net metering’, where the consumer is only charged for the power he consumes from the grid over and above the power he supplies to the grid from the rooftop installation.
The issue of metering lies at the heart of why rooftop solar has failed to take off in India. Power distribution utilities – discoms – dislike rooftop solar in general, and net metering in particular, for two reasons. One, consumers who invest in rooftop capacity also tend to be the ones discoms prefer – those with large consumption, who are also financially better placed and tend to pay their bills on time. When such bulk consumers – factories, malls etc – start generating their own power, it hits the finances of the discoms. Further, net metering pays the prosumer for power at the same rate they pay to the discom, even though discoms source a bulk of their power from thermal plants, whose generation costs are several times higher than solar.
The new rules have come up with gross metering as a solution, where the consumer pays retail rates for power drawn from the grid and is compensated at a different rate for power fed into the grid from their rooftop setup. While this will please discoms, it is unlikely to boost domestic rooftop capacity, since the consumer will also have to invest in power evacuation infrastructure, which can end up costing more than the solar panels themselves. Further, most domestic consumers look at rooftop solar as a means to reduce their power costs and not as a separate business.
If the government is serious about rooftop solar, it needs to address this issue. More importantly, it needs to ensure that discoms, who have thus far displayed a ‘dog in the manger’ attitude to rooftop solar to at least refrain from putting up roadblocks, if not encouraging rooftop solar. Procedural requirements in many states require a no-objection certificate from the discom, as well as technical approval of the infrastructure, which powers have often been misused by discoms to deter large-scale shift of well-paying consumers. Given the nature of solar power, grid power is essential, not just at nights but when weather conditions are not conducive, such as Mumbai’s prolonged monsoon season. Discoms need to realise this and work towards the common goal of sustainability.