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A roof of a house with a solar panel photographed at sunset.
Nagpur, India

Rooftop Solar Struggles Even In India's Most Sunny Cities

With its many advantages, rooftop solar systems could have been the most popular power alternative in India's homes and establishments: It is sustainable, causes minimal distribution losses, allows dedicated transmission and requires no land use. Yet, as of December 2020, it makes for only about 20% of all the solar energy capacity installed in the country — 6,792 MW of the total of 34,197 MW.

To understand the reasons, we picked Nagpur, a central Indian city with 300 sunny days a year, for a two-part investigation. The average annual solar radiation in Nagpur is about 5.09 kWh/m2/day. To put it in context, 90% of India receives 5 kWh/m2/day of solar radiation, but only in summer months.

Despite this advantage, of the 532,000 properties with solar rooftop potential in Nagpur, only 2,528 (0.47%) have actually installed it — 2,187 residential properties and 341 non-residential, commercial or mixed use. As an incentive, the city's municipal corporation offers a 5% discount on property tax for those using rooftop systems but even that has not helped much, we found.

What are the reasons for the slow growth of the rooftop solar sector in Nagpur, and the rest of Maharashtra? High costs, tedious application and installation procedures, and tardy delivery of services are some hurdles, we report in this first of a two-part series focussed on consumer issues. In the second and concluding part, we will examine the role of discoms in the rooftop sector.

High costs

Statistics on growing power usage show that it is imperative for consumers to switch to alternative power sources. Homes make for 75% of power consumers in Maharashtra and their need for dedicated energy is ever-growing with increased use of appliances. A 2019 survey by energy non-profit Prayas of 3,000 households in semi-urban and rural areas of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra concluded that "beyond the basic uses of lighting and space-conditioning, people use electricity for a host of appliances which reduce drudgery and improve quality of life. As the household's income increases, the use of these appliances increases significantly adding to its electricity consumption". Up to 95% of the households surveyed in Maharashtra used televisions, 98% smart phones, 67% mixers/blenders and 55% refrigerators.

We found that people in Nagpur are keen to switch to solar power but the uptake of rooftop solar systems in Nagpur — and across Maharashtra — is poor and this is primarily because of the high cost of installation: approximately Rs 2 lakh for a 3-kV system and Rs 5 lakh and more for a 6-kV system. This prompts users to seek subsidies, policies for which have undergone frequent changes in the state.

In a short film we made to document the issues faced by a cross-section of rooftop solar users in Nagpur, Prachi Mahurkar, who works to promote green buildings, spoke of cost hurdles. "When we were planning to build our top-floor home, we thought that given the plentiful sunshine in Nagpur we should go for solar panels — we needed 44. We found the technology changing and improving rapidly, sometimes in 15 days. When we started checking out the market we found that even with a subsidy, Indian panels were more expensive than imported ones. We decided on imported ones," she said. (see video).

State policies and agencies dealing with rooftop solar power have also changed frequently over the last decade — as the timeline below shows — leaving consumers confused and frustrated. Solar installers also complain that discoms are not promoting the alternative energy system enough.

Five years since government push, uptake still low

In 2008, Nagpur was declared one of India's 60 'Solar Cities' as part of a solar city program launched by the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy (MNRE). These cities were to aim at a minimum 10% reduction in their projected demand for conventional energy in five years and replace it with a combination of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient measures. Nagpur was one of the five cities chosen in Maharashtra.

For at least three decades, say experts, Maharashtra has had big solar projects and even off-grid rooftop solar installations — those not connected to a power system or utility company. But it had no policy to connect urban rooftop solar installations to the grid till 2015.

Sudhir Budhay, a certified energy manager and solar consultant, who has been in the solar rooftop business for three decades, has been installing off-grid solar systems for over 25 years. He found that many consumers illegally connect their power systems to the grid for intervals when solar energy is unavailable — for example, at night or after three consecutive cloudy days.

In 2013, Budhay filed a public interest litigation with the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) seeking regulation for legal grid support to rooftop solar installations. Later that year, the MERC directed that a panel be formed to look into the case, and subsequently, the MERC (Net Metering for Roof-top Solar Photovoltaic Systems Regulations), 2015, were notified. (Net metering refers to a system where a consumer is credited for the surplus power generated by his/her installation, and it is adjusted against subsequent consumption.)

In 2016, under the MNRE's Central Financial Assistance (CFA) scheme — aimed at promoting rooftop systems in states — a subsidy scheme with net metering was initiated in Maharashtra. Initially the scheme was implemented by the power generation company and then, as the timeline below shows, it has been a work in progress for the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Co. Ltd. (MSEDCL), the state's primary power discom.

Various problems cropped up over the years, limiting the spread of the rooftop system, as we explain.

'Long wait every step of the way'

Describing a 'consumer' as a 'prosumer' — one who produces power as well — the Centre's 'Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020' promised, among other things, that the "technical feasibility study shall be completed within a time period not exceeding 20 days and the outcome of the study shall be intimated to the applicant". In cases of delays, consumers can drag discoms to court. But consumers complain that there is no effort to penalize tardy delivery of net metering connections. Consider the number of steps involved in getting a rooftop system below:

Many consumers alleged that they had to not only deal with long waits at every step but also bribe officials to get their work done quickly.

An online system was introduced in 2020 for securing the MSEDCL's sanction to set up a rooftop solar system. But this has not helped, said Pradyumna Sahasrabhojanee, an architect, who applied under the Central Financial Assistance category in January 2021. He complained of procedural delays — being asked to hand in hard copies of his application and being told that the Mumbai-based private agency allotted to him said it was unable to send its personnel to Nagpur. He finally received the allotment sanction in April but as on July 25, the system was not yet fully installed, and only the structure on which the panels are to be put up was ready.

Pravin Sute, an MSEDCL executive engineer (commercial department), maintained that under a January 2021 commercial circular, the consumer can expect an entirely online procedure to secure a connection. Consumers can call MSEDCL to resolve any issues they face in dealing with these companies, he said, adding that no company can cite the pandemic to deny service in any area. The MSEDCL's tenders committee is empowered to act against truant agencies, he added.

Delayed subsidies

Some consumers such as Shripal Kothari, a chartered accountant based in Nagpur, complained about delays in subsidy payments. Kothari decided to go for a 7 kW solar rooftop system only because there was a subsidy on offer. Since June 2019, he has been waiting for the money, he said. "Almost 9-10 months after my system was installed, MSEDCL gave frivolous reasons such as my account is in a 'cooperative bank/nationalized bank/ joint account', even when my name is first [in the joint account]. Why could they not have pointed out such things right at the beginning?"

The payment of subsidy has never been a smooth affair, even before MSEDCL took over the subsidized rooftop solar schemes. The Maharashtra Energy Development Agency (MEDA), or MahaUrja, had issued a policy and methodology for grid-connected solar projects in 2015, and once the net metering regulation was notified, was put in charge of implementing the subsidized scheme.

The delays in payment of subsidies were related to hitches caused by certain kinds of consumer bank accounts, said MEDA's general manager (solar) Vinod Shirsat. "We immediately disbursed whatever money came to us from the Centre," he said. "If at all there was some delay, it was because we ourselves received the money late. People who have accounts in cooperative banks face such issues as these banks don't have an RTGS [real time gross settlement] facility. So, naturally, we asked for another account. But of the 12,000-odd people that received subsidies, hardly 100-150 people faced this problem."

Shirsat, however, could not explain why consumers were not informed earlier on that they would need bank accounts that support RTGS.

Although the implementation of the rooftop scheme was handed to the MSEDCL in 2019-20, it was only towards the end of 2020 that MSEDCL started accepting applications for rooftop installations, after having selected 26 agencies across 16 zones of the state.

Yet the delays with subsidy allotment continue.

As of March 2021, the MSEDCL had not allotted any subsidy for the year 2020-21, Sute said, but having gone fully online, things would improve. "When a customer submits a commissioning report online, it goes directly to the MNRE. We are demanding an advance CFA. So, once the MNRE approves it, the money will be directly transferred to the designated agency," he said.

Officials were unable to specify how long it takes for a consumer to receive subsidy after submitting their commissioning report. No matter how rapidly MSEDCL processes applications, the subsidy amount has to come from the MNRE. To avoid delays, MSEDCL has asked for a 30% advance to be able to pay consumers on time, Sute said.

When a consumer gets a new power connection, the power department staff installs the new meter, money for which is charged to the customer. But in the case of a solar rooftop, the customer not only pays for it but also sends it for testing. Neither Shirsat nor Sute could explain why this was a requirement.

"These procedures are introduced deliberately to harass a consumer and force him into paying bribes to local discom officials," alleged a solar rooftop integrator, who asked to remain anonymous.

Not enough promotion: Manufacturers

Businesses that install rooftop solar systems also believe that cost is the biggest reason why consumers are wary, but cite a range of other stumbling blocks. Saket Suri, secretary (social) of Maharashtra Solar Manufacturers' Association (MASMA) enumerates inconsistent policies, procedural hassles, and lackadaisical attitude of government agencies, both at national level and state level. Whatever policies are established benefit discoms more than promoting solar power generation. (See video below).

Vivek Bhore, who holds one patent for solar panels and two for solar water heaters, has been running a solar installation business for over 20 years and suggests an aggressive campaign to promote clean power. For over a decade, at various public platforms, he has been advocating the 'polluter pays' principle to promote rooftop systems: anyone causing pollution by using fossil fuels must install a solar device as compensation. "This will drive home the importance of solar energy," said Bhore.

He also suggested that banks be given targets to disburse loans for solar installations and that all public buildings and structures carry hoardings exhorting citizens to use solar rooftop and offering details about local solar installers.

Maximizing Rooftop Solar Benefits

We spoke to innovative users and advocates of rooftop solar systems on how they are dealing with the problems associated with it.

Prafulla Pathak, president of the Solar Energy Society of India (SESI), advocates a mix of grid-connected and non-grid connected rooftop systems. "For a consumer connected to the grid, there can be a switch, which separates the operator's supply from the rest of the network. When switched off, the rooftop solar can cater to the demand and after sunset, with the switch on, the consumer is connected to the grid," he said.

Several solar installers, both big companies and individual vendors, convince buyers that they can raise additional income by selling the extra power generated to power discoms. Advocating the 'money saved is money earned' concept, Pathak suggested that the consumer should concentrate on using the cheap rooftop solar power for self-consumption and bring himself/herself in the low tariff category. Power discoms across India have a slab-wise billing structure where the lowest slab is charged substantially less per unit billing compared to the high-end users. "A peace of mind option," Pathak pointed out.

The concept of earning by selling extra power is misunderstood by many, he said. Net metering does not mean that the value of the surplus solar power generated is paid in cash or credited to the consumer's bank account, it is only adjusted against subsequent months' consumption.

Dilip Chitre, who runs a motor driving school and has been an solar innovator, advocates the use of direct rooftop solar energy by way of direct current (DC). This needs a parallel wiring for the rooftop solar system wherein the solar cells/panels generate an output in the range of millivolts. The many solar cells in multiple panels together would yield a higher DC power, of say 12 volts. Conventional power supply coming into most homes is in the AC mode (alternating current) of 230 volts while modern appliances such as mobile chargers, radios, laptops, televisions, and LED lights need just 6/12 volts DC (direct current), necessitating the use of adapters to convert AC into DC. This can be avoided by using DC solar, Chitre said.

DC Solar: Rishabh Jain installed 2 kW solar rooftop for his bike showroom in October 2016 but instead of net metering, opted for DC solar, as per Dilip Chitre's advice. All the 110 lights in the showroom, and even the halogen lamps outside, are DC lights. The system has a battery backup, so the showroom gets power till its closing time late evening. "At my other showroom, the power bill is Rs 20,000-25,000 but here, the monthly average is Rs 4,000-5,000. Even in summers, it increases to just Rs 6,000, not much. We face some issues due to continuous heavy rainfall or cloudy days but for hardly 20 days a year," Jain said.

This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by IndiaSpend on 27 July 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Rooftop solar faces many hurdles, even in India's "solar cities" / Credit: Nivedita Khandekar via IndiaSpend.