Last year, India suffered a series of crippling blackouts when their coal power stations ran idle due to dwindling fuel supplies. Learning from their mistake, India pushed forward bold initiatives that could see the country become a large player in the field of solar energy. Already, the country announced plans to install 20,000 megawatts of solar capacity into their main grid by 2022 – a huge increase from the mere 1,700 megawatts being generated today. In particular, India’s clean energy developers are interested in expanding solar-thermal energy. Solar-thermal energy, which uses the sun to make turn steam-powered turbines, is able to supply energy around the clock in a manner similar to coal and gas-fired plants.
Unfortunately, India’s solar energy companies are experiencing a wave of setbacks that are expected to slow future development. Some of these setbacks are endemic to the region. For example, many companies lacked reliable solar radiation data when they made the plans for their solar-thermal plants. As a result, several solar-thermal plants are being built in areas that receive relatively small amounts of solar radiation. Another problem that Indian developers face are the occasional dust and sand storms that plague the sunnier regions of India. These poor weather conditions can delay projects by up to a month, and some buildings have even collapsed while in development due to the severity of the storms. These endemic problems, while having a big impact in these early stages of development, will likely be solved in the coming years with the help of reliable data and advanced construction techniques.
However, some of the setbacks facing India’s solar-thermal industry are from the international market. Currently, there are no local suppliers of the specialized components needed to make a plant and, as a consequence, many companies have to import from companies who hold a monopoly over their desired parts. For example, Dow Chemical Co. originally sold their heat-transfer fluid at around $3.00 per kilogram in early 2012. After the company heard of India’s investment in solar-thermal energy, they increased the price to around $5.50 per kilogram – a mark-up nearly double the original. Unable to find other sources of the heat-transfer fluid, many plants had to accept the high price set by Dow Chemical Co. Price increases like these only serve to set back company budgets and potentially stall the production of clean energy plants. More importantly, they also serve to discourage local companies from venturing into these new energy markets.
Despite these setbacks, India is quickly gaining ground in the solar-thermal energy sector. The Godawari Power Plant was recently completed this year in northwest Rajasthan. The 50-megawatt plant is the first of seven plants being built this year, with six more expected to finish within the coming months.