Bhadla, an arid sprawl in Rajasthan spread over 45 sq km, is where over a million glistening silicon panels fuel India’s ambitious plan to generate 1,00,000 MW of solar energy by 2022. The Indian Express visits the plant that is on its way to becoming the country’s biggest solar park.
Bhadla is almost unlivable. Located in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district, its normal temperatures oscillate between 46 and 48 degrees Celsius, while hot winds make even the relatively lower 40 degrees Celsius unbearable. Sand storms are an almost daily occurrence, and sometimes create massive dunes on the roads, temporarily cutting off certain areas. The nearest habitation is about 50 km away, in Bap, while any semblance of an urban settlement is 80 km in the other direction to Phalodi, a tehsil town.
All of which makes Bhadla an almost perfect setting for a solar power plant. As such, this sandy, dry and arid piece of land, about 200 km north of Jodhpur and about 320 km west of Jaipur, now houses a project that will, in less than two years, become India’s largest solar park. When all the four phases of the project are completed and become operational by December next year as is expected, Bhadla will be capable of producing 2,255 MW of electricity.
Spread across 45 sq km, the size of a small mofussil town, the solar park is part of India’s grand plans to generate 1,00,000 MW of solar energy by 2022. “Solar radiation is very good here. And it receives this kind of radiation almost the entire year. Crucially, the state government had already installed power evacuation infrastructure (transmission lines, transformers to carry power to the grid). But the biggest factor was availability of land. Here, we had large amounts of government-owned barren land that was ideal for the development of solar energy,” says B K Dosi, managing director of the Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation Limited, the main developer of the project.
More than 30 similar parks are in various stages of development in other states, as the country embarks on its boldest expansion of the power sector, with an aim to deliver electricity to all and meet an expected increase in demand fuelled by economic growth. India has already committed to ensuring that by 2032, at least 40 per cent of its electricity would be generated from renewable sources. A majority of this would come from solar energy. Recent estimates have put India’s exploitable solar energy potential to be in the range of 7,50,000 MW if about three per cent of wasteland is made available.
Bhadla offers a glimpse into that future. A sight that will become familiar not just in the hinterland but also a permanent feature of the urban landscape as solar panels find their spaces on rooftops of city buildings. About 40 per cent of the 1,00,000 MW target is to be met through such decentralised rooftop solar systems.
Large solar parks like the one in Bhadla are designed to evoke the wonderment that dams and huge power plants did in the 1960s and 1970s. From the middle of one of the blocks, all that the eye can see in every direction are gleaming silicon surfaces of solar panels, interspersed with small buildings that serve as control rooms or house transformers and other equipment.
Over a million solar panels have already been installed, though only about 15 per cent of the total park is currently operational. The panels appear shiny white under bright sunlight, with the hues on their surface changing with the time of the day — orange in the early mornings and around sunset, and a light blue under an overcast sky.
“We hope that by December next year, the entire solar park will be operational. It will be the jewel of Rajasthan and the showpiece of India’s solar power programme,” says Dosi.
Among the first players to start operations here is the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which began producing electricity from Bhadla in February this year. NTPC is developing four blocks of 65 MW each as part of the second phase of the project that will eventually see an installation of 680 MW. The first phase of 75 MW is also operational. The NTPC blocks alone produce between 12 and 13 lakh million units of electricity a day, enough to power about 200 average urban households for a year.
Inside one of the control rooms in an operational block sits Pankaj Kumar, 28, whose job it is to monitor the amount of electricity being produced and to assess if all the equipment is working to plan. By the time he arrives in his office between 8 and 8.30 in the morning, his computer in a room on the first floor of the two-storey building has already been active at least two hours. Two screens on his table — another large one is set to be installed on the opposite wall — display rows and rows of data; they give him a sense of the operations outside. In the last one month that he has been here, Pankaj has not faced any crisis.
“I have to keep a watch on the electricity being produced by the solar panels… to see whether everything is working fine… the cables, transformers and other equipment. It is all new right now. We have just begun. So there are hardly any problems these days,” says the engineer from Delhi.
There are about 300 other people working at the Bhadla site — technicians, maintenance staff, construction workers, security guards and cleaners (people whose job is to wipe the dust off the solar panels). About 30 per cent of the workforce, especially those involved in construction, come from neighbouring villages. A few locals, with engineering degrees or diplomas from polytechnics, have found jobs as technicians and computer operators.
But solar parks are not particularly labour-intensive. They are relatively simple in design as well. Of all the different means of power generation, solar parks are probably the least complicated to operate. Unlike thermal power plants, hydroelectric projects or nuclear reactors, there is not much equipment involved. Solar panels, cables, inverters and transformers are almost all that are needed to run a plant.
Individual solar panels are capable of generating about 300 watts of direct current (DC), which means a 1 MW (1,000 kW) plant would have between 3,000 and 4,000 of these panels. Each of the four blocks developed by NTPC (4 x 65 MW) has about 2.5 lakh solar panels.
The DC power supply has to be converted into alternating current (AC) to allow for changes in voltage using transformers. This conversion takes place in the inverter room, of which there are several in the Bhadla park. The AC voltage is then ‘stepped up’ and carried on high-voltage transmission lines to the grid, from where electricity is distributed to different users.
Solar power plants also take very little time to become functional. A thermal power plant typically takes about 5-6 years to be operational from the date of start of construction. In the case of a nuclear power plant, this can go up to 10 years or more. Hydroelectric projects have even longer gestation periods due to social, environmental and engineering complications. In comparison, the NTPC blocks at Bhadla took about nine months to start producing electricity.
But it is the environmental benefits that has India pushing massively for solar energy. Unlike thermal power, produced mainly by burning coal or gas and which still accounts for almost 70 per cent of India’s total electricity generation, solar energy is clean. It does not pollute the environment and is also a renewable source. With carbon dioxide emissions — thermal power plants are one of the biggest sources — being responsible for global warming and the consequent climate change, countries across the world are shifting to cleaner sources of electricity production. Solar, wind, biogass, and even nuclear energy, fit the bill.
As part of its 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change, India had set a target of 20,000 MW of electricity generation from solar energy by 2020. Back then, solar energy had a negligible contribution to India’s electricity mix, with the only renewable source producing significant amounts of energy being wind. At the time, production costs of solar energy were prohibitively high as compared to conventional sources like coal. The per unit price of solar generated electricity used to be close to Rs 15 while thermal plants were able to sell power for between Rs 3 and Rs 6 per unit. With the economics against it, solar generation capacity in India was less than 3,000 MW between 2008 and 2014, despite several incentives and the setting up of a National Solar Mission.
But something miraculous was also happening during this time. Owing to demands from many countries, including China, and rapid development in technology, prices of photo-voltaic systems saw a sharp decline. In some countries, prices in 2014 fell to almost 20 per cent of their 2008 levels. Generating electricity from these solar systems suddenly seemed a financially viable proposition. During this time, the global installed capacity of solar electricity increased six times.
It was against this backdrop that the NDA government decided to dramatically raise its solar energy ambition and increase the target of solar power from 20,000 MW to 1,00,000 MW, while extending the target timeframe by two additional years. Due to the aggressive push from the government, India added about 10,000 MW of installed solar capacity in the last two and a half years, compared to the 3,000 MW in the previous seven years. More than 30 solar parks of different sizes, in 20 states, are in varying stages of development. In February this year, the government approved doubling of targeted production from solar parks — from 20,000 MW to 40,000 MW. This would require the setting up of at least 50 solar parks, each with a capacity of 500 MW.
The volumes have ensured that prices of solar energy have come crashing down in India as well. Solar companies are now bidding to sell their electricity at Rs 3 and 4 per unit — comparable, if not cheaper, to electricity produced from conventional sources like coal. In fact, the bidding for the third phase of the Bhadla project last month saw the per unit price falling to Rs 2.44, the lowest so far. Two days before that, the fourth phase had been bid out at Rs 2.62 per unit. In March last year, the second phase of Bhadla had been bid for Rs 4.34 per unit. Government officials expect that Rs 3 per unit price will become a norm very soon.
“Bhadla has set a precedent. Companies will be forced to take extra measures to match that kind of price point. Future auctions are going to be more competitive,” says a government official.
Back at the control room, Pankaj is already preparing for his next assignment. He says he will leave the site in about three months after having completed ‘performance guarantee tests’ on the equipment. “My role will be over after that and I will move to a new project,” he says. Many other senior officials of the developers will also move on, once the plants get commissioned, leaving only the operational and maintenance crews to shepherd the plant to becoming India’s biggest.