So, lets talk green: If tiny Chile can do it, why can’t India

Deccan Chronicle.  | C B Ramkumar

Opinion, Op Ed

Chile’s solar industry has expanded so quickly that it’s giving electricity away for free.

Chile has seen a phenomenal growth in the solar industry.

‘It's time you heard some happy music. God knows this world could really use a little sunshine’, wrote Eric Carmen in his song ‘Crusin Music’ by The Raspberries. One country – Chile -- has taken these words seriously, and its citizens are dancing to this happy music.

Chile has seen a phenomenal growth in the solar industry. Chile’s solar industry has expanded so quickly that it’s giving electricity away for free. According to CleanTechnica, at the end of 2013, Chile had a total installed capacity of 11 MW of solar power. In 2014, it went up to 402 MW, and in 2015 it was 848 MW. It is projected to go up to 1.5 GW in 2016. And, it has around 10 GW of solar projects still under construction.

So, what’s the secret here, besides an enlightened political class? God-sent natural resource – plenty of sunshine. Solar developers have flocked to the hot, barren lands of northern Chile to take advantage of some of the best natural conditions for solar in the world. The high horizontal solar radiation in areas in and around the Atacama Desert make solar technologies more productive in these regions, translating into lower costs per unit of electricity generated.

Having said this, Chile has its share of problems, too. The increasing energy demand came on the back of its booming copper mining production and resultant economic growth. This has now taken a hit because of low global commodity prices. The bigger problem is of power transmission from the solar farms.

Chile has two main power networks, the central grid and the northern grid, which aren’t connected to each other. There are also areas within the grids that lack adequate transmission capacity. This means, one region can have too much power, which can’t be delivered to other parts of the country, according to Carlos Barria, former chief of the government’s renewable-energy division.

The government is working to address this issue, with plans to build a 3,000-kilometre transmission line to link the two grids by 2017. It’s also developing a 753-kilometre line to address congestion on the northern parts of the central grid, the region where there is surplus power.

“Chile has at least seven or eight points in the transmission lines that are collapsed and blocked, and we have an enormous challenge to bypass the choke points,” says Energy Minister Maximo Pacheco.

“When you embark on a path of growth and development like the one we’ve had, you obviously can see issues arising.” So, Chile is on its way to sorting out the problems and continue to grow its solar industry like no other in the world.

Where are we in India, compared to Chile? Government-funded solar electricity in India was approximately 6.4 MW per year as of 2005. 25 MW was added in 2010 and 470 MW in 2011. As of 31 March 2016, the installed grid connected solar power capacity is 6,762 MW and India expects to install an additional 10,000 MW by 2017, and a total of 100,000 MW by 2022, investing $100 billion in it. 

With about 300 clear, sunny days in a year, India's theoretically calculated solar energy incidence on its land area alone is about 5,000 trillion kilowatt-hours per year. The solar energy available in a year exceeds the possible energy output of all fossil fuel energy reserves in India, as we are as lucky, if not luckier, than Chile. If Chile can do it, can’t we?!