Narendra Modi’s solar mission: Success of Diu and indifference of Chandigarh show that this green initiative has a long way to go
However noble the intention behind the solar mission, Chandigarh's case shows ramming it down throats of unprepared people could raise unforeseen problems.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's push for solar power has not just energised the power space in India but has got international recognition too, as the International Energy Agency which oversees energy policy in industrial nations, has indicated that it is ready to support the prime minister's solar dream for developing nations.
Back in 2015, at the Paris climate talks, India set itself a goal of having 40 percent of its installed capacity powered by renewable energy sources by 2030. Consequently, the solar power capacity target set under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission was upped five times from 22 GW to reach 100 GW by 2022, with an investment of Rs 6 lakh crore.
This is to be achieved principally by generating 40 GW through rooftops and another 60 GW from large and medium scale grid connected solar power projects. The government is providing Rs 15,000 crore as capital subsidy to promote the massive expansion of rooftop solar projects in towns and cities. The central subsidy, presently, covers 30 percent of the expenses incurred in installing a small rooftop solar plant.
As the different states are in various stages of rolling out solar power generation schemes for individuals and institutions, two centrally administered Union Territories of Diu and Chandigarh took the lead. Both have had very different experiences.
Diu is set to become the nation's first 100 percent solar-powered city this year. This distinction is coming its way largely because it set up a 9 MW solar park on 40 acres of barren land in Fudam, in the last two years. From importing electricity from Gujarat, the Union Territory now has surplus power during the day, which it now sells to Gujarat. Government buildings are following the trend with rooftop plants but ordinary residents are only just beginning to get interested in the subsidy being offered by the government.
The Union Territory of Chandigarh had also set a target to be the nation's first solar city but has run into numerous problems, which indicate that while solar power is undoubtedly the manna which can help the nation reduce its carbon footprint, the minutiae of its implementation has to be refined.
In May 2016, the Chandigarh administration took up the prime minister's mission in such earnestness that it made it mandatory for all houses on plots of 500 square yards and above, to install rooftop solar plants within two years, failing which, the plots will be liable to be resumed. Similar plants have to be installed on all educational institutions and government buildings. The directive also makes it mandatory for all new houses coming up in Chandigarh and housing societies to install rooftop power plants.
Even as the administration was applauded in renewable energy circles across the country, for taking this step, in Chandigarh, its denizens have other thoughts. Arbitrary orders to the owners of 20,000 old houses, many of them on sprawling plots in the greenest parts of the city and mostly inhabited by retired government officials, has led to outrage and anger.
By the end of the deadline, which ended last week, only 1,100 owners had obeyed the administration's orders, and allegations of them being forced and dictatorial are heard loud. Many are not willing to strain their financial capacities by installing a plant which costs upward of Rs 2 lakh, even after subsidy.
Even as the deadline was extended earlier this month, by another six months due to public pressure, one 97-year-old retired army officer moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court against the administration's orders. Col Pritpal Singh Gill (Retd) has argued in his petition that he was under great mental stress and disturbed by the "illegal and arbitrary" action of the Chandigarh administration, which has made installation of solar rooftop plants mandatory. The court has since issued a notice to the administration.
Then there are those like Pallav Bannerjee, an architect, who see the threat of resumption notices as sheer intimidation. Given the Chandigarh experience, getting the manna of solar energy on every rooftop is not going to be that easy.
It is, however, worth examining the experiences of the few who have indeed installed these rooftop plants out of altruistic or other motivations. Among them is Maj Gen Pushpendra Singh (Retd), who installed a five-kilowatt rooftop solar plant on the roof of his 500 square yard house, last year, "to join in the movement to reduce our carbon footprint" and to set an example for others in his neighbourhood to emulate.
"I am happy that my electricity bills have come down drastically and sometimes the meter even shows that I have generated surplus power. This gives me the satisfaction that I have generated some clean energy for myself as well as for others." But people like him are in the minority.
Raman Mann described the government scheme as a "rip off". Ruing the decision to install a three-kilowatt plant on the roof of her farm early this year, Raman is most upset because even after having a generation plant on her roof, she still does not get a 24-hour power supply. That is because power supply to all such houses comes the usual way from the power grid. And, whenever there is a power outage, they suffer like the others.
"I was under the impression that my power plant will service my house and whatever surplus electricity I generate, will go to the grid," she said. But it doesn't work like that. All rooftop power plants transfer all the electricity generated by them to the common grid and not directly to the power lines of the house owner.
Moreover, the plant needs electricity to run and whenever there is an outage, the rooftop solar plant also stops working. "When I asked the company which installed the plant, I was told that this is the only technology which we have at present." If she needs a 24-hour power supply, she will have to install a power inverter just like everyone else. Raman typifies the experience of many residents and is one reason why there is little enthusiasm for rooftop plants on residences.
The Union government has made it compulsory for each state to have at least two such solar cities, where all residential buildings above a certain area will have rooftop solar plants.
But one thing is clear, that however noble the intention, and resolute the purpose, ramming it down the throats of unprepared people could throw up unforeseen problems. So far, the response from residents in Diu has been lukewarm as well.
Among those cities who are keen to make a solar mark is Varanasi, in the prime minister's own Lok Sabha constituency. A recent report by the Centre for Environment and Energy Development said that just 8.7 percent of the total eligible Varanasi roof space within the 69 square kilometres of built-up area in the city's municipal corporation area can generate its total potential of 676 MW.
Just how will it motivate the residents of this congested city to install the rooftop plants is the question which governments will encounter in town after town as it accelerates its renewable energy plan across the country, to achieve the target set for 2022.
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