Clean Tech

In solar, small can be beautiful

A Srinivas | Updated on January 22, 2018

A tale of two countries Rooftop solar panels in Germany

Unlike Germany, much of India’s investment in solar has been in large-scale or ‘utility solar’

India can learn from Germany’s experience, writes A Srinivas

Travelling through the German countryside takes one back to Rachel Carson’s  Silent Spring, which chronicled the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment. The landscape outside Berlin is a green expanse, like an endless golf course, but somehow melancholic: there are no birds or animals to be seen across acres of what seems like an assiduously cultivated forest. Even in the crisp autumn air and clear sky, the ravages of industrial excess cannot be forgotten. But that grimy past has also given birth to an enduring sense of environmental awareness. Germany is showing the world how to move out from coal and nuclear to renewables. And, it is doing it the Schumacherian way.

Lessons for India?

Does such a transition to renewables hold out lessons for India? It will be readily argued that the two economies are not comparable – Germany’s per capita income even in purchasing power parity terms, at $43,000, is eight times India’s. India’s electricity consumption per capita is 131 kwH per annum, against 1,731 kwH in the case of Germany. India stresses its right to the atmosphere to meet basic energy needs; it has committed to reducing the ‘energy intensity’ of its GDP without committing as such to absolute emission reductions in the near future.

Germany has committed to an absolute reduction in emissions, by 40 per cent over 1990 levels in 2020, and finally ‘decarbonising’ its economy by 2050. Both countries, however, have chosen to rely on wind and solar to achieve their respective climate-related goals.

Renewables, principally wind and biomass (10 per cent each), produce close to 30 per cent of Germany’s electricity (solar is at 7 per cent), whereas in India renewables produce over 10 per cent of total electricity, two-thirds of it coming from wind.

It is here that India can learn from Germany’s solar experience. If Germany, with its vastly higher demand for household and industrial energy, is able to service its needs through renewables output (the grid at times is unable to cope with electricity from solar and wind), there is no reason to believe that it cannot happen here, when climatic conditions are better.

Green power to the people

India’s investment interest in solar has risen sharply, but unlike Germany most of it is in large scale or ‘utility solar’. A paper by Harry Wirth of Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, headquartered in Freiburg, Germany, points out that the 38.5 GW of PVs installed in that country is distributed over 1.5 million power plants. This lies at the root of Germany’s energy transition – that it is actually a socio-political movement to “transfer ‘power’ from the utilities to the people,” to quote German Green Party MP, Barbel Hohn.

Hohn is speaking for a sizeable community of ‘green’ entrepreneurs who grew up participating in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Eva Stegen is one such individual, who heads a utility that produces power through micro-hydel, solar and ‘co-generation’. ESV, organised as a cooperative by a group of friends who were active in this agitation, today supplies electricity to consumers in Berlin, while being headquartered in Schonau, a picturesque village in the southern ‘black forest’ region. Says Stegen: “What began as a protest against the US trying to use Germany to station nuclear warheads culminated in a total rejection of nuclear power after Chernobyl in 1986.”

With climate change concerns ruling out coal as a long-term option, a switch to renewables was inevitable. Fukushima in 2011 spelt the death knell for the nuclear power industry in Germany, with Chancellor Merkel deciding to phase it out in deference to the public mood. As Hohn says, “the cost of nuclear power has not come down in 50 years, whereas that of solar power has come down 80 per cent in 10 years.”

Price holds the key

A February 2015 report by Crisil and PHD Chamber on India’s solar sector observes that “the technology curve for solar power is evolving. In the last two years…average solar tariff rates have declined from ₹15 per kWh to ₹8 per kWh”. However, government support is critical at least till it falls to ₹5 per kWH which the Centre has promised to achieve by December 2015. Germany’s experience tells us that falling costs of solar output as a result of higher grid feed by renewables — the prices on the spot trading exchange are actually falling — have little to do with the scale of the solar power plants. It is the mass production of silicon PV modules by China that is driving down prices. India can therefore push decentralised, rooftop solar without compromising its electricity output goals – more so because land is scarce.

It is, however, hard to visualise a concerted shift to decentralised production in the absence of civil society awareness. Besides, the fossil fuel lobby will be at work to project renewables as ‘pie in the sky’. The German transition too, met with resistance from coal and nuclear utilities. The German government has reduced the feed-in tariff incentive, leading to a decline in rooftop investor interest, allegedly under pressure from the utilities.

The real transition, however, has to take place in consumption patterns. Alternative forms of energy, solar included, are not without technological limitations – in the case of solar, for instance, it is the dependence on fossil fuel derivatives to manufacture PVs. The Gandhian saying that there isn’t enough going around to satisfy greed has never seemed truer today, with India’s rich flaunting standards comparable to their counterparts in the West — unmindful of poverty or environmental distress.

(The writer was recently in Germany at the invitation of Clean Energy Wire)

Published on October 13, 2015

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