While large-scale projects of over 100 megawatt (MW) are now common, the investment risks caused by climate, poor installation and lack of proper maintenance are on the rise in the solar sector.
A target of 20 GW of cumulative solar installations was set for 2022 by the National Solar Mission. Four years ahead of time, the country has already achieved this milestone. For the first time, solar was the top source of the new power capacity additions in India during the calendar year 2017, when 9.6 GW of solar installations, accounting for 45 per cent of total capacity additions, was done.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) was perceived as a thing of the future. Today, technological breakthroughs position the industry for huge growth. That said, the average solar cell is approximately 15 per cent efficient, which means nearly 85 per cent of the sunlight that hits the cells does not get converted into electricity. This observation was made by one of India's largest solar power producers, who recently set up the world's largest solar power plant in Tamil Nadu and owns a solar power plant in Bitta village, Gujarat. With a total capacity of 40 MW, the electricity generation of this plant is about 63.8 million unit' merely at 18.2 per cent of its total capacity.
Although Indian developers have scaled up their standards in bidding for solar projects, it is a matter of concern that developers are neglecting the quality of solar projects.
The Indian market is one of the most profitable, yet risky one for project developers and investors in PV. While large-scale projects of over 100 MW are now common, the investment risks caused by climate, poor installation and lack of proper maintenance are on the rise. In a study conducted on behalf of the National Metrology Institute of Germany (Physikalisch-TechnischeBundesanstalt' PTB), PI Berlin recently examined the most common risks facing the Indian PV projects and suggested ways to avoid them.
Six PV projects in India were investigated between 3 and 14 July 2017, for the purpose of the study. The study was conducted with the support of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), the Indian National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE) and the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI). The German KfW Development Bank helped in selecting the projects for analysis and assisted PI Berlin in gaining access to them.
Challenging climatic conditions
"In most regions of the world, PV projects are primarily affected by a few climatic stress factors, such as salt in the air, high UV radiation, high humidity, heat, sand, or strong winds. But in several areas of India, PV projects often face a large number of these factors at the same time,"explains Asier Ukar, Senior Consultant, PI Berlin. In the state of Rajasthan, in particular' which is especially a lucrative place for PV projects due to the high level of solar radiation'PV modules and other system components have to battle against many climatic stress factors at once.
To avoid outages, investors and project developers need to ensure that PV projects are designed appropriately from the beginning. "For instance, earthing connections made from aluminium or featuring suitable coatings will not corrode as easily in soils with high salt content,"says Ukar. "In addition, India has some of the highest solar irradiation rates in the world, but that can also lead to faster component degradation,"he adds.
Quality vs quantity
Solar has been the talk of the town for quite some time now. A module is a very important component in a solar project. It is a connected assembly of several solar cells and it works like how life insurances work for us. Earlier, there was not much challenge in giving the best quality modules, but as the size increased along with market requirements, setbacks started showing up. Meanwhile, in a solar project, quality plays an important role since the life of a solar panel is 20'25 years. If developers fail to address quality, then it is likely that the project will suffer from the same inefficiency for the entire life of the panel.
Sunil Bansal, General Secretary, The Rajasthan Solar Association has a strong point to make. For him, the sector needs to understand not only the warranty of the module but also the future of the company. "If a module has a warranty of 25 years, what is the warranty of the company existing for 25 years?"he questions. According to Bansal, in the rat race of bidding and winning a project, developers have forgotten to procure the best in the market and have rather gone for the worst products.
Similar to Bansal, Dr PBL Chaurasia, Solar Energy Scientist and Former Vice-Chancellor, ICFAI University, Jaipur raises the concern over the existence of companies that provide solar panels for the next 25 years. "The primary concern on the installation of solar power is not only the efficiency but also the survival of the company that gives 25 years of warranty,"he says. He further suggests that apart from the efficiency of a solar project, the project owner must address the root causes such as operation and maintenance.
Rajneesh Srivastava, Chief Executive Officer, Rajasthan Urja Vikas Nigam vividly attributes the relation between a solar project developer and the solar panel manufacturer to that of a marriage: "If you do not have a healthy and quality married life, the marriage will break,"he says. Srivastava advocates installing the most efficient solar panels in a project, even if they cost more.
On the technology front, Anchor Electricals (A Panasonic Group Company) is a pioneer in manufacturing photovoltaic HIT modules and claims to offer greater efficiency than the normal solar panels.
According to Badrinarayanan Thirumalai, Solar BU Head, Anchor Electricals (A Panasonic Group Company), the company uses the right combination to reduce the velocity of light. He explains, "We try to intensify the voltage onto the cell and onto the module, by which we extract the maximum production from a panel."However, Thirumalai suggests that such technology costs a lot of investment in terms of production because our HIT modules would require a much smaller area to deliver the same amount of power,"he adds.
Since HIT technology gives the highest accuracy of production with a premium attached to it, the company is working seriously on making it affordable. "We are also looking at areas of cost reduction and making it affordable to our customers,"avers Thirumalai.
High cost or quantity?
Since the competition is so intense today, the solar developers often tend to choose quantity over quality. This is mainly because quality always comes at a cost and increases the overall project cost.
Bansal believes that both, cost and quantity matters for a project developer. However, the decision lies with the project proponent. According to him, without efficient costing, the project owners will not get work orders.
However, he urges stakeholders to minimise costs on technology so that it can be procured at an affordable rate.
Thirumalai, whose company has "a few gigawatts of installations globally,"as he claims, feels that there are certain geographic locations across the world which are moving towards the use of HIT technology. Countries such as those in the Middle East are adopting HIT technology because it withstands sandstorms, wind speed and eradication levels, and still generates more than what it claims.
The company finds the HIT trend graph growing exponentially, which means more customers are able to see the advantages of using panels that offer higher efficiency. As also stated by Sunil Bansal on the reliability factor, Thirumalai stresses on the reliability of the Chinese companies which are just 10'12 years old but are the maximum contributors to India's solar dream. Globally, companies are looking at newer technologies to check how to scale down their costs. Bansal adds, "The market size has increased so much that it is difficult to figure out which Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) company is functioning well.
Murli Krishna, AGM Sales, Anchor Electricals says, "As an investor, one thinks of the return on investment or the payback period after having a solar project installed. But many people fail to factor in the Balance Of Systems (BOS) in terms of module, inverter and structure as they too matter a lot."
It is not just about recovering the investment within a certain timeframe, but also ensuring that the system continues to perform well several years down the line. "As the selection of materials is very important, everyone from the supplier to the developer must take the quality aspect seriously,"says Krishna. Alluding to some recent instances of systems failing within a few years of a project being installed, he emphasises, "We must be able to do justice to the product being supplied in terms of quality."
Recent studies reveal that instances of damage caused to solar panels have almost doubled in the past few years. Earlier, inverters caused problems but of late, modules create quality issues that hamper the entire sector. It is very important to thoroughly analyse the quality of modules and inverters at the initial stage itself so that when the system is actually deployed, it runs its full course. Chaurasia stresses on regular maintenance cycles to obtain the desired yield upon completion of a project. He asserts that it is important to work with realistic expectations, assumptions and parameters.
Quality and maintenance
"Price pressures in the Indian market frequently means that little attention is paid to PV module quality. For example, faulty electrical joints and delamination were observed in several PV projects. Defects like these could be avoided before and during the production of the PV modules,"comments Ukar. "At all sites, PV modules were observed to have cracked cells, which were likely caused during transport, installation and maintenance. These defects could have been prevented if the PV modules were handled proficiently."
Ukar adds that investments are jeopardised as much by defects in the field as they are by the lack of clarity in contracts. Contracts with EPCs and O&M companies often contain short and vaguely-worded guarantees.
According to Ukar, regular monitoring of performance and operational data would improve predictive maintenance and increase system availability. For instance, while cleaning the PV modules twice a month during the monsoon season may not be necessary; this process must be performed more frequently during the dry periods.
"The Indian market is a double-edged sword,"states Ukar. "Although India has excellent levels of solar radiation, investments can be put at risk by climatic factors, inappropriate component selection, and poor handling and installation quality. To obtain the highest possible rates of return from PV projects, steps need to be taken to ensure that high-quality components and proper assurance processes are put in place."The study concludes that affordable practical steps can be taken to mitigate these risks in spite of the current price pressures.
"The primary concern on the installation of solar power is not only the efficiency, but also the survival of the company that gives 25 years of warranty."
I personally feel the relation between a solar project developer and the solar panel manufacturer to that of a marriage." - Rajneesh Srivastava, CEO, Rajasthan Urja Vikas Nigam. ' RAHUL KAMAT
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