The Thar desert in northern India, one of the arid regions identified in India’s desert solar plan (sushmita balasubramani/Wikimedia Commons)

India’s grand plan to turn its deserts into solar farms

16 July 2014 | By Rod Sweet 2 Comments

Our story about India’s Maharashtra state getting a new solar plant went a bit viral yesterday. Planned for Baramati, Pune district, the plant will eventually power nearly a quarter of a million homes. But that will be nothing compared to the astonishing solar capacity India is contemplating under a bold scheme to turn its vast, hot, desert areas into solar farms.

In the “Desert Power India – 2050” vision, put forward in December by India’s state-owned power utility, the Power Grid Corporation, a staggering 455 GW of electricity would come from renewable sources by 2050, and around two thirds of that would be produced by vast solar PV installations in the deserts of India’s north and northwest, in areas such as Thar, Rann of Kutch, Ladakh, Lahul and the Spiti Valley.

To put that into perspective, India’s current installed generating capacity is around 232 GW, of which coal-fired generation represents 137 GW. The plan, inspired by a desperate need to ramp up power supply without upping carbon emissions, would see renewables put firmly ahead of fossil fuels in India’s energy mix.

India must do something bold if it is to meet its energy requirements. Current peak electricity demand, says Power Grid, is around 135 GW, but that is projected to more than double by 2022, to 283 GW. Underneath those figures lie huge suppressed demand: the World Bank estimates that as many as 400 million people in India currently have no access to electricity.

The country now relies heavily on fossil fuels, especially coal. Nuclear contributes 4.8 GW and large hydro plants 40 GW. The proportion contributed by renewables is significant but small, at 29 GW. Most of that (70%) is from wind.

In the Desert Power India vision, a small percentage of so-called “wasteland” – defined as barren, rocky, underutilised areas – would be earmarked for solar arrays. In the Great Desert of Thar in Rajasthan, for instance, Power Grid estimates that there are approximately 57,000 square kilometres of such land, and proposes using just 15% of that for power generation. 

Power Grid acknowledges the challenges. The desert areas in question are rough and inhospitable. Basic infrastructure like roads and power cables are lacking. Skilled labour would have to come from elsewhere. Getting the electricity from these remote places to India’s populated places would require major investment in long-distance transmission lines and substations. And keeping sensitive solar PV panels free of dust and grit in a place with little water would be just one of the ongoing maintenance headaches.

In terms of scale, the scheme resembles the vision of the Desertec Industrial Initiative, a consortium formed in 2009 to build vast solar arrays in the Sahara Desert that would transmit power under the Mediterranean to Europe. That idea appeared to wither when the founding members fell out last year.

But Power Grid believes the Indian plan is more feasible because it involves one state actor, not a sprawling consortium with conflicting interests. It calls on the Indian government to take a lead role by, among other essential things, formulating a national desert power plan, arranging easy clearances for solar power developers, sorting right-of-way for transmission lines, and bringing on the engineers and managers such a scheme would need.

Supporters of the plan should be optimistic, but cautiously so. India’s track record in major infrastructure plays is spotty. A plan rapidly to expand its road network with a national public-private partnership programme bogged down in bureaucracy and land acquisition problems.

However, the landslide victory of Narendra Modi, who swept to victory in May’s general election on promises of an infrastructure bonanza, may just unleash the institutional vigour the desert solar programme would require. “Report on Desert Power India – 2050” can be accessed here.