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A state looks at floating and rooftop solar alternatives

Bihar has the lowest per capita electricity consumption in India, which is a reflection of the poor power availability in the state. Compared to neighbouring states, Bihar ‘s progress on tapping renewable energy sources has been poor and the state may miss its own 2022 state target for installation of renewable energy capacity, says MANISH KUMAR. Government cites the high cost of land, lack of land for large-scale projects and several other reasons behind the slow growth of the sector. The state now aims to focus on solar rooftop projects, floating solar and large-scale adoption of solar street lights to add more clean energy to its power basket, he points out

Gehlaur, a village next to rocky hills, in the Muhra Block of Gaya District in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, caught national attention in 2015, when a Hindi movie Manjhi: The Mountain Man portrayed the life of the local legend from this area. The late Dashrath Manjhi, a celebrated resident of the village, rose to fame after he carved out a path, in these mountains, to nearby villages, only with his hammer and chisel. This site is now a tourist spot. Around four years ago, the state government installed around 10 solar street lights in the village, two at the sides of the house where Manjhi lived.

Now, both the solar street lights around his house and several others close to Manjhi’s memorial park lie defunct. “They were installed around four years ago. But after three years, the batteries were exhausted and since then the two solar lights around my house are not working,” Mithun Manjhi, grand-son of the late Dashrath Majhi, told Mongabay-India, while pointing towards the lights.

These is also the case of solar street lights in some other rural areas in Bihar. The state government, however, claims their Bihar Street Light Nischay Yojana has led to large scale penetration of such solar street lights in rural areas. But when Mongabay-India visited other villages where such solar lights were installed, there were complaints of non-maintenance. Such projects remain defunct which in turn reduces trust in clean energy and its viability among people.

While renewable power is a newer development, Bihar already lags behind most other Indian states in terms of access to electricity. Bihar has the lowest per capita consumption (332Kwh) of electricity, which indicates to a serious shortage of power, as per a February 2021 statement by the Union Power Ministry in the Parliament. Recently, Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said that the state government does not own any power production unit of its own as it has been handed over to the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) on which it relies for electricity supply.

What ails the growth of renewable energy?

In 2017, the eastern Indian state had unveiled a policy to focus on supporting the growth of clean energy. Almost five years later, the targets envisaged are far from being achieved. The state’s renewable energy policy aimed to boost the clean energy sector and reduce dependency on coal power. It had set a target of installed capacity of 3433 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy by the end of 2022 which include 2969 MW from solar, 244 MW from biomass and 220 MW from small hydropower projects.

However, the state has been able to achieve installation of only 386 MW of total renewable energy, which is only around 11 per cent of the target. With about a year left to achieve the target, the state is now trying to give a serious push to the struggling sector. The Bihar Renewable Energy Development Agency (BREDA), the state’s nodal agency to undertake renewable energy projects, said that projects are underway to increase the clean energy basket and boost the growth of the sector. The agency is working on two key schemes and several projects which can take the state closer to its target. It is focusing on the universal solarisation of all government-owned setups like hospitals, panchayat institutions, jails, schools and all other buildings in a phased manner.

“The Jal Jeevan Hariyali project is an ambitious project that we are undertaking. Here, the government is fully funding the installation of solar projects in all the government setups like hospitals, panchayat institutions, government offices, post offices, jails etc. This will be done in all the districts at all levels,” Abhishek Sengupta, project director of BREDA told Mongabay-India. He said the government is pushing for it because it is aware of returns from such a project. BREDA has formed special audit committees to analyse the savings after the switch to solar energy.

Focus on solar street lights

Notwithstanding the universal solarisation plan, the state government in August 2021, just before the panchayat elections in the state, announced the installation of street lights in 8300 panchayats and 143 urban local bodies across the state. The government announced a fund of Rs 20000 crore (Rs 200 billion) for it. In several regions, especially in rural Bihar, the presence of solar lights has already started making its presence felt.

“This is a mega project which can help in expansion of solar energy across the state. We already have seen its presence in different rural pockets of Bihar. Under the project, the streetlights will be off-grid with battery support. In the day, the batteries will store the energy from the sun and will use them at night. This will help in several remote areas where power supply is irregular,” a private solar energy developer from Bihar told Mongabay-India while requesting anonymity.

BREDA is also working on developing two floating solar projects to increase the solar power expansion to address the challenges of land acquisition. The state government is undertaking two floating solar projects, one with a total of 1.6 MW in Darbhanga while another one is with a capacity of 525 KW.

With a tagline ‘neeche matsya upar bijli’ (fish below and energy above), the state government has also planned to rope in the fishing community to ensure benefits to them as well as smooth installation of clean energy projects. BREDA is also likely to take up studies on the impact of floating solar power projects on water bodies and ways to boost the concept in the state.

The government is also working on conventional land-based solar parks. For instance, the work has just started for 250 MW solar power projects to be undertaken by two public sector units – Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (200 MW) and Avaada Energy (50 MW).

So far, there is no dedicated solar park or mega solar project in the state. The largest land-based solar project in the state is a 40 MW plant at Gaya. In terms of investments in the sector, besides the PSUs, developers from West Bengal, Telangana, Jharkhand are also investing in the state. Unlike other states, Bihar has not seen much private investments from big renewable energy players for large scale clean energy projects.

In addition, the rooftop project with subsidies from the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and from the Bihar Government is also going on in the state. The state government here gives 25 per cent additional subsidy along with 40 per cent subsidy from the MNRE. However, sources in the state Energy Department claims that the delay in disbursement of subsidies from the MNRE has been an issue. In some cases, the officials claimed, the disbursement was done after a delay of about three years.

Earlier this month, the MNRE informed Parliament that it has received a proposal from the Bihar government for converting Bodh Gaya, Rajgir and Vaishali as solar cities in the state. The ministry had asked all states to send an action plan on developing some cities as solar cities where solar projects could be promoted to reduce emissions. Agencies involved in the project claim the works for the same are likely to start from 2022 as the government is now in the stage of issuing tenders and finalising the funding pattern for the project between Centre and state.

What are the challenges?

According to the latest data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Bihar has some way to go in the clean energy sector when compared to other eastern Indian states such as West Bengal (583 MW) and Odisha (590 MW). The total installed capacity of renewable energy in the state is 386 MW.

When asked about the poor performance of the state, a senior official from BREDA cited several reasons which have emerged as bottlenecks in the sector. “There is a high land cost in Bihar compared to other states, higher population density and more farmlands. One cannot push for ground-mounted projects in highly populated areas. Ground-mounted projects are feasible only when the agricultural land can be converted into an industrial land otherwise there will be a loss to the developers as well as to the loss of exchequer due to higher circle rate and revenue charges,” he said.

“As this sector is exempted from stamp duty and circle charges, the government loses revenues from such projects. So there needs to be a balance. We cannot install solar rooftops on all buildings which could be disastrous in some situations and violations of building codes,” he explained. He said that if suddenly fire breaks out in solar panels and there is scarcity in buildings for open spaces there could be a risk to human lives. The state’s argument of lack of land for mega solar parks may hold some ground as the data from the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) reveals that Bihar is among the top five states when it comes to hosting maximum agriculture households.

In 2012, the Center for Environment and Energy Development (CEED) had conducted a study and recommended to the Bihar government to use 10 per cent of available rooftop in its state capital Patna for tapping solar energy which could generate upto 700 MW of energy and take care of half of the energy needs of Patna. However, so far, the state has failed to cover even half of it. Ramapati Kumar, CEO of CEED told Mongabay-India that “Bihar has a good potential of tapping solar energy and sunny days could be seen across the year.”

“However, lack of available land for solar projects and other practical issues has slowed the pace of penetration of clean energy. This is despite a good renewable project policy envisioned in 2017,” Kumar said. When asked about possible solutions to increase the pace and penetration, he said, “There needs to be more involvement of the community in such projects. For instance, in the on-grid net-metering projects, the DISCOMS should consider giving cash in return for the solar power produced by prosumers instead of paying this in kind by adjusting the same in electricity bills,” he said.

Kumar also cited the example of the southern Indian city of Bengaluru in Karnataka where the government made it mandatory for new buildings to install solar water heaters leading to saving 1800 MW of solar energy everyday and urged the Bihar Government to take steps on similar lines where the community and policies could be clubbed together.

Researchers also claim that the lack of awareness about the government’s renewable energy schemes also affects the success and expansion of clean energy in Bihar. A study on Vishali (a city in Bihar) claimed that there was a lack of awareness among people on clean energy. The study called for the inclusion of information on renewable energy in schools and also recommended more advertisement campaigns in the state to boost awareness on the issue at the consumer level (public).

These challenges towards a transition to clean energy in Bihar, come at a time when the per capita electricity consumption has increased by 129 per cent in seven years. Official data claim that while the per capita electricity consumption was 145 kilowatt-hour in 20212-13 it went up to 332kwh in 2019-20. According to the latest economic survey of Bihar, the state is home to 15.93 million power consumers.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)

July 2022

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