On 8th July 2021, a Chennai-based construction and real estate firm obtained the completion certificate from the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) for its newly-constructed residential building, located in Valmiki Street of East Tambaram. The building consists of a stilt floor plus five floors and houses 15 dwelling units. Along with amenities such as rainwater harvesting structures and fire licences, the building had also declared a functional rooftop solar installation in order to obtain the completion certificate, which is a prerequisite for all builders to obtain water, sewer and power connections.
As per the Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules 2019, one third of the total terrace area in multi-storeyed buildings should be reserved for erecting solar photovoltaic panels. “The approximate space required for erecting a solar panel is 10 sq m for generating 1 KW of electricity,” the rules say. However, in this case, when CMDA inspected their premises during the last week of September 2021, two months after issuing the completion certificate, no solar installation was found on the rooftop.
“The site in charge said that the solar panels had been sent for servicing. But why would solar panels that were just installed need to be serviced?” asked an official from the CMDA department, adding that a show-cause notice had been issued to the effect. The official wished to stay anonymous.
“The panels were damaged at the time of installation a few months ago. After the CMDA inspection, we installed new ones a month ago (around mid-October),” the project manager of the construction firm said.
However, this is not a stand-alone instance. In yet another case, a 5-floor commercial building in Dhandayuthapani Nagar, Kotturpuram declared rooftop solar connections while obtaining the completion certificate in October 2020, as per the CMDA website. But once again, when the CMDA team inspected the premises in October 2021, they found no installation. “We issued a spot notice, directing them to install the rooftop solar,” said the CMDA official. Efforts to contact the site-in-charge of the building proved to be in vain.
A regular affair?
The two cases cited above are not rare or exceptional in their violation of rules relating to rooftop solar. Most multi-storeyed buildings in Chennai were found to flout the 2019 rules with regard to provision of solar infrastructure.
“Of the 770 buildings that were issued completion certificates between February 2019 and September 2020, the CMDA officials have inspected 157 buildings. Of these, 80 buildings had no rooftop solar at the time of inspection,” revealed Member Secretary of CMDA, Anshul Mishra. It may be noted that eight teams from CMDA — each comprised of a planner and a field officer — inspected the buildings. “Most of them complied with the rules only after show-cause notices were issued to them,” Anshul added.
“While it is indeed disturbing to know about the mass violation of rules by builders, it is also important to acknowledge their problems. At a time when low budget houses are a thing in Chennai, builders cannot increase their investment, as it would push up ownership costs and thus prove to be bad for business. Installing rooftop solar is easy, but getting the connection from TNEB is a tedious process that requires bribing the officials,” said a CREDAI member, on condition of anonymity.
The rise of a black market
Meanwhile, a thorough check of realities on the ground reveals that many multi-storeyed buildings in Chennai choose to hire rooftop solar panels to get a completion certificate, rather than put up permanent structures. This also points to the prevalence of an unauthorised market network that rents out rooftop solar panels in the city.
According to the directives under the Chief Minister’s Solar Rooftop Capital Incentive Scheme in Tamil Nadu, citizens or builders should only opt for installers empanelled by the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA). However, realtors are found to opt for less known consultancies that lease out rooftop solar panels.
“The minimum period of lease is one month, and we do it all – from installing the panels and uninstalling them once the realtors have obtained the completion certificates,” said a staff member from a reputed consultancy, located at Maduravoyal. The consultancy provides rooftop rental services in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka along with Tamil Nadu.
The demand is soaring, apparently. “We get a minimum of 10 to a maximum of 30 orders a month. Most of our customers are from the ECR region of Chennai,” added the staff member. Rooftop solar panels imported from China have great demand in the city, he said.
Business-wise, it makes for lucrative profits for these vendors. “A vendor can own only 10 KW capacity panels, but continue to earn returns on the limited investment by installing and uninstalling the same panels repeatedly,” said Ashok Kumar, advisory board member, Tamil Nadu Electricity Regulatory Commission (TNERC).
According to Narayanan K, the site in-charge of a real estate firm, this is done mainly to cut costs. While it takes Rs 40,000 to hire solar panels of 10 KW capacity for a month, it costs Rs 4.4 lakh to install permanent structures. It takes around six years to recover that amount. “Why would a realtor, who wants to quote the cheapest possible price to the customer, increase his costs through expensive investments in rooftop solar?” Narayanan questioned.
Another oft-cited reason behind the violation is aesthetics and utility. “In multi-storeyed buildings, terrace space is often used for recreational amenities. Selling an apartment in a multi-storeyed building is difficult if a large part of the terrace space is filled with solar panels,” said Sneha Priya, who works in the sales department of a construction firm.
Defeating the purpose
These trends threaten the attainment of the objectives of Tamil Nadu’s solar energy policy (2019), which sets an ambitious target of 3,600 MW rooftop solar capacity by 2023. “The state’s total installed capacity as of December 2020 stands at 14% of the target,” says a report from Citizen consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG).
According to a Greenpeace India report, titled, Rooftop Revolution: Unleashing Chennai’s Rooftop Potential released in April 2018, the total rooftop solar potential of Chennai is 1,380 MW. “A big share of this, nearly 46%, can come from the residential sector. If realised, this can help the city reduce the power demand by about 10%,” the report mentions.
Uptake in rooftop solar will be realised only if the real estate firms and townships, which play a significant role in the city’s residential market, adhere to the TN building rules. “We are working on a legal mandate to impose penalties on violators,” Anshul Mishra assured.
Sustained due diligence on the part of the CMDA is also crucial to ensure compliance with the building rules. In September 2021, when it was reported that the planning authority was inspecting solar installations in buildings, realtors scrambled to hire the panels, certain in their belief that once the certificates were issued, they would not check back again.
The way forward
“CMDA issues completion certificates only once in the lifetime of the building. However, as Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB)’s services continue to be used by the buildings, the department should monitor the power consumption of the buildings. That could give a clue about non-functional solar structures. The assistant engineer of TNEB must inspect the premises and disconnect power supply if the roofs are found to be devoid of solar panels then,” said Ashok Kumar of TNERC. Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO), he adds, should act against the vendors who rent out rooftop solar panels.
According to a CMDA official, however, the benefits of rooftop solar accrue to the TNEB and therefore the operation and maintenance of solar panels should be monitored by the electricity department. Their readings (bi-monthly readings in residential and monthly readings in commercial spaces) can give an idea about the installed solar panels.
When we contacted Energy Secretary of Tamil Nadu D P Yadav during the last week of October, he said, “We will get a report from TANGEDCO and CMDA to analyse the collective capacity of installed rooftop solar.”
Finally, however, the real potential of Tamil Nadu’s solar energy policy will be realised only when citizens/apartment owners understand the importance of renewable energy. “Increased investment leading to higher home prices is the reason that builders bypass the law and go for renting solar panels. If the end customers are educated about the economic benefits of rooftop solar, they would be willing to invest a few extra lakhs while buying the house. After all, their savings on electricity bills in the long run would be substantial,” said Ashok Kumar.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published on 10 January 2022 in Citizen Matters and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: According to a Greenpeace India report released in April 2018, the total rooftop solar potential of Chennai is 1,380 MW. A big share of this, nearly 46%, can come from the residential sector. / Credit: Laasya Shekhar.