The solar mission, approved recently by the government of India projects a massive expansion in installed solar capacity, and aims to reduce the price of electricity generated from solar energy to match that from fossil fuels by 2030.
The ambitious mission hopes to generate 20 GW of solar power by 2020, to be upped to 100 GW by 2030 and 200 GW by 2050.
Officials say the US$19 billion plan shows that the country is serious about its intention to stem global warming, ahead of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.
A detailed road map has been drawn up to 2020. By then, according to the mission document, solar lighting will be available for 20 million households and 42 million tonnes of CO2
emissions will be saved annually by the switch to solar energy. The government plans to create a solar fund with initial investment of $1.1 billion and build it up by taxing fossil fuels and the power generated from them 0.1 cents for every kWh produced. By 2030, it hopes to reduce the cost of electricity from photovoltaic cells to around 10 cents per kWh, matching the price of electricity derived from conventional fuels, writes Killigudi Jayaraman in Nature.
The plan will be pushed forward by a mixture of other policy and regulatory measures. Those include making it mandatory for existing thermal power plants to generate at least 5% of their capacity from solar power, and for government buildings to install photovoltaic panels on rooftops. Producers connected to the grid will be able to sell their excess solar electricity to utilities; solar-power projects get a 10-year tax holiday; and other 'carrots' for the industry include the duty-free import of raw materials and priority bank loans.
An autonomous solar-energy authority will be created to execute the mission, but the existing solar-energy centre near New Delhi will be upgraded into an 'apex research institute' to coordinate solar-research centres across the country and promote foreign collaboration. The mission document recommends introducing solar-energy courses to the Indian Institutes of Technology, and creating a fellowship programme to train 100 Indian scientists a year in world-class institutions.
As for the costs of solar power, "technology is rapidly changing worldwide and costs will come down once photovoltaic panels are mass produced," says K. S. Narayanan, who works on polymer solar cells at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research at Bangalore. "We see incremental growth in efficiency of our solar cells in our lab, and globally the scene is changing faster," he adds.
"The solar mission is a win-win proposition as it promises to bring down air pollution, cut down oil bills, and contribute to a greener world," asserts Jayaraman Srinivasan, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
But some are skeptical abut the mission's chance of success. "Going from 5 MW to 20 GW in 11 years looks like science fiction," mocks Manu Sharma, at the Centre for Social Markets, a non-governmental organization based in New Delhi.
Sharma, a campaign coordinator for the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, points out that India's ten solar-panel manufacturers together have just 80 MW of solar-panel production capacity.
One can get an idea of the vaulting ambition of the Indian planners when one realizes that at the moment the total output of power across all mediums, coal, gas and nuclear plants, amounts to only 150 GW.