The stars seem to be well aligned for solar energy in India. The success of Nerendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent elections has solar enthusiasts talking because Modi has highlighted solar energy as a strategic area of investment for India. He also seems to be a man who practices what he preaches: during Modi's time as the chief minister of Gujarat state, he oversaw a trial project, assessing the feasibility and benefits of a "solar canal" by covering the top of an irrigation canal with solar panels. Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) owns and operates the state's canal network, the total length of which, including sub-branches, is about 19,000 km at present. In 2012, Modi implemented a 1 megawatt (MW) pilot project, known as the Canal Solar Power Project, to develop a 750 meter stretch on the Narmada branch canal near Chandrasan village in the Mehsana district.

Solar Canals: providing electricity and shade

Modi inspecting the solar canal

Not only does the canal project produce clean energy, it is doubly useful in that the solar panels which cover the canal reduce water evaporation, a major concern in a country where water security is paramount. According to The Hindu Business Line, the 750 meter pilot project alone prevents the loss, through evaporation, of 9 million liters of water annually. Furthermore, with the existing canal network, the future development of solar energy in the region does not require the acquisition of vast tracks of land. There are plans in the works to develop the canal further and the Damodar Valley is considering following suit. It is estimated that if just 10% of SSNNL's 19,000km canal is further developed, 2,200 MW of solar power could be generated, and conserve as much as 11,000 acres of land and about 20 billion liters of water per year. With a solar score of 78, one can understand why Modi was motivated to develop the solar potential of the Mehsana district in Gujarat, India.

Moreover, during his time as the state's chief minister, Modi did more than oversee the canal initiative. He was key to developing other solar projects such as the ‘rent-your-roof’ concept in Gujarat state, where households can rent their roofs to companies like SunEdison who install solar panels. Although this model has been used for some time in North America and other parts of the world, it's just starting to take off in India.

Two light bulbs, a solar cooker and a TV

In one of our past articles, we looked at the solar potential of India and underlined the dire need for access to reliable power in the country. About 700 million people in the country have very limited access to the electricity grid. One of the very first policy announcements of the new government was to set a goal to bring solar electricity to each and every household in India by 2019. This ambitious 5-year goal envisions powering two light bulbs, a solar cooker and a television for each home. This may not sound too impressive when compared to the electricity consumption of developed nations, but if it succeeds, it would break all historical records of electrification for the masses. It will also save a lot of time in these households: women will not need to spend too much time collecting fuel for cooking, children will be able to study in the evenings and the quality of life of whole families will improve.

Decentralized nature of solar: key to success?

As part of this transformation, the government hopes to generate many jobs and leverage the decentralized nature of solar energy. Instead of expanding the electricity grid to cover the whole country, solar panels can be used for off-grid applications, or for building small local grids. This process is akin to the mobile telephone networks and it enables much faster deployment at a lower total cost.

India stands to benefit greatly from solar

With a population expected to surpass China's and reach 1.45 billion by 2030, India is going to be the most populous country in the world. For developing countries, infrastructure investments such as new roads, internet access and airports have traditionally brought significant benefits. In this regard, India's solar infrastructure investment, ranging from a few solar panels to power modest household needs to  massive solar canals, signify a new chapter in the evolution of solar energy. Interested in being part of this exciting transformation? Sunmetrix Discover is an excellent place to start!

 Photo credit: PIT Photo