Solar self-reliance stays in the shadows

M. Ramesh | | Updated on: Jan 09, 2022

Way forward: Should India try to occupy the space of high-value niche solar products? | Photo Credit: gerenme

Does India have what it takes to compete with Chinese manufacturing might in everything from silicon to modules?

Based on the promised incentives and protection from imports, many companies including Adani, Azure, ReNew and Waaree have expressed their willingness to manufacture solar cells and modules in India.

But is the government’s pitch good enough? Second, can Indian manufacturers compete against the Chinese?

India has capacity to manufacture 3 GW of cells and 10 GW of modules (cells are made into modules), but most of it is on paper. Much of this capacity came up in the initial days of the National Solar Mission, early last decade, and are mostly in disuse.

Comparatively, China has 174 GW. It has scale, technology and is fully integrated — right from silicon to modules. Having a presence in the entire value chain (silicon-poly or monosilicon-ingots-wafers-cells-modules) gives it a sharp competitive edge. Moreover, that country controls the basic raw material, polysilicon.

So, can Indian manufacturers ever be able to take on the Chinese? Or should India try to occupy high-value niches such as modules of emerging technologies (perovskites, organic cells) or applications (BIPV)?

These questions were raised in a recent webinar on solar manufacture, organised by Business Line . The panellists were Ashish Khanna, President, Tata Power – Renewables; Ivan Saha, Chief Technology Office, ReNew Power; and Harsha Bangari, Deputy Managing Director, Exim Bank. Khanna and Saha argued that India can take on the Chinese only with adequate government support.

Khanna said the difference in price between Indian and Chinese polysilicon modules is never more than 4-5 cents a watt (roughly ₹28-35 lakh a MW); this can be bridged by incentives.

That brings the discussion to the first question: How good is the package of incentives?

The allocated ₹4,500 crore, which is 2.2 per cent of the total outlay (₹1,97,291 crore) for 13 sectors, is to be spent over five years. This, according to experts like Saha, can support 9 GW of capacity. Manufacturers, however, have their misgivings.

Saha said the policy required some tweaks or, at least, clarifications. One major apprehension is over how the amount will be distributed among the manufacturers and when. If given when a new plant goes into operation, then it will be problematic since the first movers may end up cornering all the incentives, as Saha explained in the webinar.

Experts also note that in a previous incentive system (M-SIPS, meant for electronic and solar) the money never came.

Industry expert Sunil Jain, who was until recently executive director and chief executive officer of Hero Future Energies, observes that unless the government spells out the policy in detail, perhaps as a standard bidding process document, investors were unlikely to put down money. There is a similar need for clarity over the basic customs duty — tentatively fixed at 25 per cent for cells and 40 per cent for modules — and the duration remains unclear.

After nearly two years of waiting, just as the government appeared ready to bring in the duty, it was deferred to 2022, presumably under pressure from developers.

Experts have flagged yet another issue — products that go into the making of a solar module such as frames, glass, EVA and connectors, all of which are imported today.

These need to be competitive, too, for the final product to withstand the heat of the unforgiving market.

Many pieces need to fall in place quickly, but there seems to be no sense of urgency. For instance, there has been talk for over six months about getting a large public sector company, perhaps NTPC or BHEL, to set up a plant to make polysilicon, but there has been no progress yet.

Given these uncertainties, atmanirbharta in solar manufacture remains a pipe dream.

Published on March 07, 2021
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