New bids show promise of solar power in India
THE world already has an installed base of about 300 GW, led by USA, China and Germany. But it is appropriate that India, most of it endowed with more than 300 days of sunshine, takes a leadership role in solar power. Solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy are major components of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Two recent events related to India’s energy security are worth noting. The first was the joint announcement by the Prime Ministers of India and Australia that the latter would soon start exporting uranium to India. This would need legislative approval in Australia, but PM Malcolm Turnbull is confident of getting that bipartisan support from his Parliament. It would be the first time that Australia would be exporting uranium to a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India refuses to sign the NPT on principle since it is discriminatory and exempts the big five of the United Nations Security Council from signing. Because of this stance, India suffered nuclear apartheid for almost three decades before the Indo-US civilian nuclear power deal led countries from the Nuclear Suppliers Group to export nuclear fuel to India. Thus Australia, which has forty percent of the world’s uranium, signed a nuclear cooperation agreement two years ago with India, facilitating the supply of uranium. India gets only three per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, although it is trying to raise it to five if not ten per cent. Nuclear power is a clean substitute for fossil fuels, which harm the environment.
Nuclear power plants, of course, have their own challenges. They need 20 square kilometres of land, far away from densely populated human habitation, near a large body of coolant water, and they need to address risks of accidents, proliferation and reprocessing the spent fuel. India has 20 plants out of about 450 worldwide. The world gets 11 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, with countries like France and Japan getting more than 60 per cent of their domestic needs. Even if India manages to massively increase its share of nuclear powered electricity (after overcoming the economic, social and political challenges), the global supply of uranium is simply not enough. The world will run out of uranium in less than 100 years, and any increase in uranium usage from current levels decreases the time horizon of the supply even more. Unless India or the world develops thorium-based nuclear power, or finds a way of cheap and safe reprocessing of spent fuel from current reactors, uranium based power is soon running into a dead end.
This leads us to the other major recent event in India’s energy landscape. A recent auction to bid out the setting up of a 250 MW solar power plant in Andhra Pradesh, the winning bid was a record low of Rs.3.15 per unit (kilo watt hour), won by a French company. This beat the previous record low bid of Rs.3.30 attained in a February auction in Madhya Pradesh for a 750 MW solar power plant. In the last two years, the successful bids in solar power auctions have come down steadily beating the cost of coal-based thermal power, even without any subsidy. The initial capital cost of installing solar power has also come down from around Rs.20 crore per MW a few years ago, to around Rs.5.5 crore now. The cost of solar panels is continuously declining.