Varuna’s way into solar energy

As we can see from the comparison between wind energy and solar energy, we have reached a point where in Tamil Nadu it makes little sense anymore to invest in wind-energy. The environment would hardly benefit from that, because the TNEB grid cannot absorb more wind energy.

In order to further help the environment we could choose from three options:

a) Invest in wind energy outside Tamil Nadu

b) Move our focus onto photovoltaic

c) Invest in other environmentally relevant energy devices like pumped storage or grid-enhancement.

We have come to the conclusion that from an environmental point of view, the next natural step for Tamil Nadu is to go for solar energy in a massive way. Therefore we intend to set up a photovoltaic plant in Auroville itself.


However, we are facing the following problems with this project:

a) There is till now not a single grid-connected plant of the size we intend to set up (above 1 megawatt capacity) in Tamil Nadu.

b) There are also no rules yet framed for feeding solar current into the TNEB grid. There is not a single power-purchase agreement signed by TNEB so far for solar power current. So we presently stand nowhere in the jungle of rules with TNEB.

c) The money we would get from TNEB for our solar electricity right now would most probably be only 2.8 Rs per kWh, while our cost would be around 10 Rs per kWh.

d) We could hope to get a good additional income from REC (Renewable Energy Certificates). However, the whole future of the REC system in India is doubtful. Producers of conventional electricity (for example private coal power plants, or TNEB-owned coal power plants) are forced by the Central Government to produce a minimum percentage (at present 7% to 9 %) of green energy. If they do not produce this percentage of green energy, they can purchase RECs from producers of green energy and compensate the deficit. The problem is, that till now TNEB and other conventional energy-producers are not really purchasing and producing these certificates as they should. If it becomes a common practice that TNEB and other energy producers just ignore this rule, and nothing happens to them, then the REC market will collapse.

e) Due to the financial independence of Varuna, we could maybe install a big solar power plant in Auroville, inspite of incurring a loss with this. (The investment would come to 12 crores.) By working with TNEB on creating a tariff for this and setting up power purchase rules for solar, this could function as a door-opener for other investors into solar energy. But if we are now setting up such a plant, we are creating a precedent case for the whole solar scene in Tamil Nadu. And by setting up the first plant in a commercially non-viable way, we are setting a bad precedent. TNEB may be reluctant to go for a reasonable tariff for solar, by saying that already a plant is working and selling them the electricity for 2,8 Rs per kWh. So in the end we may block further commercial investment, by making this un-commercial investment.


The plus points in setting up the solar-power plant in Auroville would be:

a) In the long run, we could aim at a fully independent Auroville-owned mini-grid, provided we could set up the pumped storage at a hill in Auroville. The solar plant cannot feed electricity directly into the households or commercial units of Auroville. A certain surplus could be used to pump water up to an elevated lake. At night, when the solar-panels are not producing current, the water from the elevated lake could flow to a lower-sited lake and drive a turbine, which would provide the night current.
b) Along with setting up the solar plant we could take up the work with TNEB and Tangedco to frame some meaningful rules for grid-connected solar plants. If this would be successful, then we would have achieved something which has a much bigger relevance for our environment than our own plant.
c) If we are installing the first grid-connected solar power plant in Tamil Nadu, we could establish a contact with the rule-making authorities in TNEB and Tangedco, which would also give us the possibility of positively influencing the solar scene in India later on.
d) While setting up the plant we could develop our own infrastructure to become an active player in this field in the long run. For example, we could establish connections to suppliers of “wafers” in China, or of top-class converters from Germany, etc. We could then help other bigger companies develop their plants, or we could go ourselves for more solar plants, once the rules are made in such a way that one can make profit with solar-energy.


What are the next steps ?

Right now there is a lot of confusion in TNEB and TANGEDCO regarding solar energy. So we should first wait for one or two months, until TNEB really decides to actively go for supporting solar energy. The Chief Minister Jayalalitha has announced that shortly there will be 3000 megawatt capacity solar-plants in Tamil Nadu. However, till now there have been few signs from TNEB that they intend to make a real effort in this direction. We however expect that some clarity regarding the rules has to come soon. So the first step is just to wait for 6 to 8 weeks.
Second step is to get into contact with the top officials of TNEB and TANGEDCO and see under what rules we could presently set up our plant. If the present rules do not allow us a productive working, then we have to make proposals to change the rules or develop a new set of rules which are more favourable. This will be a big work, but it may be the most important work in Varuna’s efforts for the environment; maybe more important than setting up solar plants or wind generators.
Third step would be, as soon as there are clear rules, to decide on a strategy for setting up the plant and connecting it to the grid. There should be several possibilities: purely grid-connected for captive consumption, a mix between grid feeding and captive consumption, REC, other renewable subsidy schemes, etc. It also could be possible to purchase our own feed-in transformer, which will have uninterrupted power. The question is, once we have such a 24/7 transformer, whether we could connect some of our consumer load from Auroville to this transformer. With this we could maybe save expensive generator power for units which are running diesel generators during power cuts.
Next step would be to go to China, Germany, etc, and find good sources for importing solar-cells, inverters, silicone for manufacturing the panels, etc.
Next: Trying to link up with other potential plant constructors.
Next: Setting up in Gold-in-glass a workshop to manufacture panels and the installation devices for photovoltaic.
Next: Import of equipment.
Next: Setting up the plant in stages.