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India Emerges as New Frontier for Solar Power Developers

Indian laborers work near solar panels at the Gujarat Solar Park at Charanka in Patan district, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Ahmadabad, India, Apri. 14, 2012.
India’s emergence as a new frontier for solar power has turned it into a key market for solar power developers. Plummeting prices and a push by the government have made solar energy a viable option in the sun-drenched country.

Thousands of blinking, photovoltaic solar panels sprawled in a barren, arid region in the western state of Gujarat have been lighting up homes for nearly a year.

Asia’s largest solar energy park, near Charanka village, was established last April by more than a dozen international companies to produce 214 megawatts of power daily.

Since then, more solar parks have come on line in a country that produced virtually no solar energy three years ago.

Amit Kumar at the The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi says rapidly falling prices for solar energy have made it commercially viable to harness the power of the sun.

“In a year’s time, as far as progress is concerned we have about 1500 megawatts of solar power and that is an achievement. Prices are also continuously coming down, and we feel again the target that cost of solar power should be equal to conventional power, we feel it could be achieved by 2017 itself,” said Kumar.

Conventional fossil fuels produce most of India’s power, but the government has set an ambitious goal of producing 20,000 megawatts of solar power by 2022.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged global companies to make India a solar energy hub at a conference on clean energy.

With nearly 400 million people without access to power, mostly in rural areas, India desperately needs new sources of energy. Even urban areas reel under chronic power shortages. And the focus on solar energy to fill the gap is attracting companies to grab a slice of the emerging solar power sector.

Some companies are establishing big solar parks attracted by government assurances to buy the power at subsidized rates.

Others are producing small solar systems for village communities. They are companies like Bangalore based SELCO India, whose solar systems help power low wattage appliances such as lights, fans, television sets, lamps, mobile chargers and sewing machines.

Prasant Biswal at SELCO gives an example of how access to power improves the livelihoods of low-income families.

“You have a sewing machine which can be powered by electricity, but unfortunately in most of these areas where there is no electricity, the entrepreneur is forced to use manually operated machines. When we power it on solar, what happens is instead of producing 10 or 20 saris, the person produces say about 80 or 100 saris,” said Biswal.

Analysts say with vast tropical areas and ample sunshine for much of the year, India could emerge as a hot market for solar power if government policies continue to support the sector.