Setting things straight, I don’t write anything personal but this post is intended to be a little different. I have taken some time off to look back at where it all began for me as a professional. The reason, it’s been over 5 years since my first project at a remote site in Rajasthan, which incidentally happened to be the first solar project to be commissioned under the National Solar Mission (NSM). Little did I anticipate that a 5MW project would kick off a programme, which if all goes as per plan could see nearly 100GW of solar projects by 2022. As a Graduate Engineer Trainee (GET) and 2 weeks into the job I was moved to a village in Rajasthan from the comforts of my hometown, Bengaluru. ‘Getting your hands dirty’ was one of the popular phrases used to encourage a fresh graduate and help settling in a rural setting. The real experience of a ‘renewable energy’ professional soon began.
A glance at the project plan tested my engineering background and understanding of semi-conductor physics and basics of photo-electric effect. A material without Silicon/Germanium could still exhibit PV behaviour, an eye opening introduction to thin films and the Cadmium-Telluride (CdTe) technology. Coincidentally this project also happened to be the first large scale deployment of this technology in India. The modules were assembled on a structure that had only posts rolled in India with the aluminium purlins imported, which was strange considering our large aluminium industries. Also, the available DC cables in India were not capable of withstanding a prolonged exposure to sunlight and hence high quality DC solar cables were also imported.
Time was a luxury for projects in 2011, although the projects were equally challenging. A 5MW project was to be commissioned in 8 months. The timelines of the early projects were long mainly due to over reliant on imported materials, although better planning ensured work at site was synchronised with the material delivery schedule. Since this project was one of the first of its scale, it had to be built by a skilled workforce and hence we had international sub-contractors with significant European work experience land in India with meticulously planned action chart right up to the commissioning date only to find the site was not shovel ready. Add to that, there were delay in shipments more specifically delays in shipments getting cleared at customs with all the due formalities to get exemption benefits allotted for solar projects which everyone were dealing with for the first time. If 2016 saw Phalodi setting the record for the 50°C breach, 2011 saw Jodhpur region receiving the highest rainfall in decades, which disrupted installation works. Not to mention, work disruption by local villagers demanding right to work ‘on their land’ in spite of lacking the qualifications to do so, it was a common feature in 2011-12. So, even an 8 month timeline was short considering the vagaries at site.
And finally, with an increased workforce participation which involved local villagers who were then trained by international subcontractors the project got on track. Although transmission line and grid extension was not a significant challenge like today, it did get complicated and stretch the timelines, but in the end the project was commissioned right on time. Post commissioning one of the first learning was to familiarise with the procedure to clean the modules, using the right equipment, wasting the right amount of water and most importantly doing it early morning or late evening to ensure solar production is not disturbed. Incidentally the project has been one of the top performing plants commissioned in the first phase of NSM.
5 years on…
Looking back, 5MW construction was significantly challenging being the first project of its scale. Over the years, 5MW was claimed to be done in a month, a year later 5MW of module installation was done in a week and recently we had a developer who went on to execute blocks of 5MW spread over a project location in a day. It clearly signifies the growth, but what goes unmentioned is the development of supporting ecosystem around project development. One, developers and Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) companies have gone from strength to strength over this time by doing more projects and managing resources. Second, the entire manufacturing supply chain is ready for projects of any scale throughout the year. Significant progress or rather forced adoption is seen in the sector especially in the manufacturing. International inverter, mounting structure, DC combiner box, solar cable, connectors and monitoring system suppliers have set up base in India or tied up with an Indian company. Back then, little did the manufacturing industry like aluminium and steel rollers anticipate opportunities. Early on, steel and aluminium rolling companies were sceptical about solar power plant as a means of business to them. A few of them accepted production orders on the condition that we take the cost of tooling development, today most of them supply exclusively for solar projects. Skilled workforce was a rarity or rather non-existent, today any village in the sun-belt region would claim to have people/local sub-contractors with solar installation experience.
It is always said that policies and regulations can build or destroy a sector; fortunately I have been on the positive side of things. I have seen a sector show promise, witness uncertainty and now rise back to a state of optimism. Moving from a time of relying on imports for major components to just relying on import of modules, sourcing international contractors to developing local contractors and allied services the sector has come a long way. Starting off as a professional in this sector, I was drawn by the thought of 100% renewable, although I now understand the technical challenges in that vision, I believe there are definitely interesting times ahead.
[PS: The experience would have been incomplete without the support of my former colleagues; PC: Author and his ex-colleagues]