Indian utilities plan to use 23,000 acres of land to build the largest solar power plant in the world, at 4 gigawatts of power, bringing prices and production of solar energy closer to competitiveness with coal.
The plant in Rajasthan is expected to commission its first phase in 2016, providing 1 gigawatt of power, enough to make it India’s largest solar power project ten times over. It will be a joint venture of five government-owned utilities. The other 3GW would be produced in an arrangement determined by the success of the first phase.
The finished plant would be comparable in power production to the four in-progress coal-fired Ultra Mega Power Plants (UMPP) under production, at 4 gigawatts of power. But those plants are struggling to hold prices low due to reliance on imported low-carbon coal. The solar plant’s operations won’t be subject to any such constraints.
In addition to cutting carbon, getting off of coal would help India reduce the 100,000+ deaths each year caused by coal plant pollution.
Jasmeet Khurana, of Bridge to India, said that these solar mega projects were intended to reduce the price of solar to INR 5 per kWh (USD 0.08/kWh), bringing it close enough to typical coal prices of INR 3.5/kWh to INR 4.5 kWh for solar to be truly competitive. In fact, coal’s relatively high prices made it so that even India’s largest coal company is turning to solar panels to lower its electric bills.
This comes as IBM and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation finalized a plan to link technological infrastructure in a massive stretch between India’s business and political capitals. Grid improvements will be necessary to fully take advantage of the new solar plant, as India’s often experiences outages and rationing, especially outside of big cities.
Meanwhile, another effort is underway to use solar energy in India in an innovative way. A company called Sarvajal is developing solar-powered “water ATMs” for remote villages, where tens of millions of Indians drink contaminated water on a regular basis. The ATMs would allow entrepreneurs to profitably sell water in smaller villages where transporting bottled water is prohibitively expensive.
As coal and water stress in India drive prices higher, wind is already competitive with new-build coal, and solar parity is getting closer as well, with cost-competitiveness expected sometime between 2016 and 2018. A future of renewable energy may be within reach for India.