India Aims High With 4GW Solar Plant

The fourth-largest energy consumer in the world is starting to make some noise on the renewables front. India, with its growing population and GDP, has announced plans to build a massive 4-gigawatt solar photovoltaic plant near Sambhar Lake, west of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan. This would dwarf all existing PV plants around the world, and would nearly triple India's existing solar generating capacity in one fell swoop.
Nature reports that the mega-project will cost $US 4.4 billion, and will take seven years to complete. The plant would go a long ways toward India's plan to have 20 GW of installed solar capacity by 2022 [PDF], up from essentially zero only a few years ago. Of course, building anything this big often means delays and cost overruns, especially in a country not known for strong electricity infrastructure. Still, it's an encouraging sign that India is trying to move beyond its historical predilection for building coal plants.

We'll have to wait and see whether the new plant is the beginning of strong move toward renewable energy, or whether it's just a bit of shiny distraction in an otherwise dirty energy mix. The bulk of India's electricity comes from coal plants, and demand for the dirtiest of fuels has grown 7 percent per year over the last decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Not coincidentally, India's Central Electricity Authority reports a 6.73 percent increase in electricity generation in December 2013 over December 2012.
In the next decade, India will need to add lots more power generation to keep up with its growing population and electricity demand—the country currently has less than 300 GW of total installed electricity capacity for a population of 1.4 billion. The easiest way to add power is building lots of new coal plants. In 2012, a World Resources Report tallied up about 1 200 coal plants planned for construction around the world, and an astonishing 455 of them were slated for India alone. Many of those won't actually be built, of course, but it puts the 20 GW solar goal (equivalent to only a small handful of big coal plants) into some perspective.
Then there's the electric elephant in the room: India's shoddy grid. A large proportion of the population lives in rural areas and doesn't have access to any electricity at the moment, and huge centralized power plants—be they 4-GW solar or coal—won't do much to change that fact. Just as with big hydroelectric projects in Africa, the rural poor probably won't have the lights suddenly turned on with these grand solar plans—it's distributed generation from solar and other sources that is more likely to bring people out of energy poverty. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission roadmap includes only 2 GW of "off-grid solar applications" by 2022 [PDF], compared with the 20 GW of grid-connected projects.
The EIA also notes that the bulk of electricity generation is situated in the western states of India such as Maharashtra (where Mumbai is located), and the new solar mega-project in Rajasthan won't change the current geographic imbalance.
Heading toward 20 GW is a start for a country whose contribution to global warming is steadily climbing, but with all that coal set to burn it won't make a huge dent. For comparison: The U.S., no beacon of clean energy transitions itself, projects to install 10 GW of solar PV per year by around 2016.

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