I got an opportunity to speak at the Times Renewable Energy Expo, a Renewable Energy (RE) conference in Pune this past week. I was privileged to be part of the panel featuring Dr Chetan Singh Solanki, Prof. IIT Bombay who has pioneered the adoption of solar power in rural communities. The theme of the panel was ‘Pace of RE scale-up in India’.
I represented India Energy Storage Alliance (IESA) and spoke about integration of energy storage with RE. The intent was to emphasise the need for energy storage in providing flexibility to the grid under increasing penetration of renewable energy. Being intermittent and seasonal, wind and solar energy do have its drawbacks. In spite of being a clean source of energy, the intermittent nature stresses the traditional fossil fuel plants and forces them to operate below optimal efficiency thereby increasing the operating cost and associated emissions. The message was well received by the audience comprising of project developers, researchers, policy makers and RE enthusiasts. But, the burning topic throughout the conference was ‘Are the record low solar tariffs realistic?’
The drop in solar prices
The recent bids in Bhadla that resulted in record low tariffs of ₹ 2.62/kWh and ₹ 2.44/kWh in a span of 2 days was a major discussion point. The drop from ₹ 3.15/kWh to ₹ 2.44/kWh (23%) in a month was never expected. (Read more about why there are no more outliers in solar)
The drop in solar prices is attributed to the decline in module prices which is true but it hides the bigger picture. In a recent publication by Bloomberg, an Altman Z score analysis(see below) of the module manufacturers reveals a gloomy picture. Only one company lies above the mark with three others in ‘just safe’ zone while the rest have all indications to go burst. Incidentally Solar World just announced the beginning of its end. (Also, interestingly Bloomberg lists most of these companies under Tier 1 suppliers).
Is the development sustainable?
Wind recently witnessed an intense debut reverse bidding and if the indications are right, it could well follow the solar route albeit at a lower rate. So the big question then turns out to be, ‘Is RE development sustainable?’ ‘Can companies and the stakeholders sustain this in the long run?’ I have due respect to all the experts in the big corporations who are winning projects at this price, I wouldn’t challenge their acumen. At a personal level, I just have a few points to say why I believe this development is not sustainable in the overall gambit of things.
- There is intense corporate competition, with no long term visibility and the urge to develop large portfolios in a short time is driving the bids.
- How can module manufacturers who are financially weak be trusted to produce quality product that performs for 25 years?
- Supply is just one side, on the other side low tariffs is also driving down installation costs. There is an even bigger pool of ‘installation experts’ who offer manpower services at any price asked for (What about the logic that says your pay increases as you build expertise?).
- And, the last one, preserve natural resources. I personally feel this is a huge problem, we don’t want to destroy land (and water) resources on projects whose performance is going to decline rapidly every year.
Renewable Energy development that is sustainable is the need of the hour!