Solar Is Changing Fast, Here Are 5 Ways It Already Has

Highlights :

  • The solar market today wears a changed look. From technology , to scale to customers, it has all changed, as we explain here.

When the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission was launched back in January 2010, India had a total installed solar capacity of around 160 MW. The mission itself had a target of 20 GW by 2022. However, changes on the ground in terms of technology, availability and fresh climate realities meant a wholesale upgrade on those numbers, with the country targeting 100 GW of solar by this year end. While that number is unlikely to be met due to a number of reasons, there is every possibility that by the end of FY-22-23, India should be at close to 65 GW of solar capacity in India. The September 2022 figures from the Central Electricity Authority places solar at just over 60 GW, out of a total renewable share of 117 GW of renewables in the total energy mix of 407 GW of generation capacity. That’s 15% of total capacity in the country, from almost nothing in 2010. The overall share of renewables, targeted at 65% of total capacity by 2030, is also expected to be powered by solar, with a share of around 300 GW out of a renewable capacity of 450 GW by 2030.

5 Ways Solar Is Changing

This feature however is about how this next stage of solar growth is going to be different. If the last 12 years have seen the sector evolve from small solar plants to massive utility scale plants, from feed in tariffs to auction based mechanisms, the next few years will be very different. Just consider the fact that 75% of the solar capacity we are expected to have by 2030 is yet to be created. Storage, hybrid projects(with wind), floating solar, these are just some of the many completely new aspects we will see. But the big five, based on our discussions with hundreds of exhibitors at the recently held REI 2022 event, are clearly the ones below.

#1 Shift to Higher Output Modules

With the government approval to implement the second phase of the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme for gigawatt-scale manufacturing of high-efficiency solar PV modules to the shift of Indian solar manufacturers toward producing high-output modules, the output efficiencies are at the forefront of the change in the solar industry. Indications have already been given that the government will raise the bar on the minimum effiviency requirements for ALMM too. That is hastening the shift from the ‘obsolete’ multi-crystalline silicon (multi-Si) – still accounting for two-thirds of the existing domestic PV manufacturing capacity – to the monocrystalline (mono-Si) type, the current “workhorse”, among all PV technologies.

Seeking higher efficiencies, MBB (Multi Busbar) Solar Cell technology Must be kept an eye on. The busbar is the thin rectangular strip printed on front and backside of the solar cell to conduct electricity. This strip separates the cells to conduct direct current from the photons and transfer it to the solar inverter that converts it into alternating current. Multiple busbars are used to wire solar cells together to generate high voltage electricity, and can generate cost savings in the metallization process by reducing the requirement of silver coating on the front side. The silver coating is one of the most expensive steps in cell fabrication.

In the past few months, bifacial solar panels have been gaining prominence too, thanks to more competitive prices and higher efficiencies. Bifacials have also helped revive the struggling trackers market in the country.

Many global players are entering the segment in India. Chinese major Arctech, through its JV with the Adani Group, Jash Energy, announced its first manufacturing base dedicated to solar trackers in the country.

Bifacial Modules

Although bifacial modules were first invented in the 1980s, it is only now that the solar industry is sitting up and taking notice of the breakthrough innovation that offers (significantly) more benefits over monofacial panels.

Dr Omkar Jani

Dr Omkar Jani

Dr Omkar Jani, CTO- Solar, Reliance Industries Ltd, explains why bifacial modules are naturally beginning to gain popularity, “With the same investment, bifacial modules, with the incremental sunlight they capture from the back of the panel, deliver efficiency that matters today.”

Darshil Gondaliya

Darshil Gondaliya

Darshil Gondaliya, Rayzon, is also convinced that  that bifacial modules with their higher efficiency, are more popular now. “Bifacial modules generate more power. On an average, in terms of kilowatt per day their yield is 5.5 units to 6 units.”

Such gains are amplified with the use of trackers, a trend that has gained momentum with rising costs of energy.

Shailesh Vaidya

Shailesh Vaidya

Shailesh Vaidya, CEO, Scorpius Trackers, while asserting that the trackers had never really gone away adds that by next year, the firm is  looking at 900 MW- a 3x jump from this year’s 300 MW. Elaborating further, he reveals that trackers and bifacial modules together increase efficiency by potentially 25%. The combination is great at the same time for project LCOE and IRR.

Vineet Mittal

Vineet Mittal

Vineet Mittal, Director & Co-Founder, Navitas Solar reiterates the fact stated by many solar pundits, “Bifacial modules are high in popularity because they generate more power with almost the same BoS cost. They generate 5 to 15 per cent more power.”

As per a Bridge to India report, “bifacial modules over monofacial modules with fixed tilt structures and single axis trackers is estimated at about 1% and 6% respectively.”

No wonder then, that Vineet Mittal estimates sizeable growth for bifacial modules in the next two to three years, “Currently, their market share is 10 to 20 per cent, which will definitely cross more than 50 per cent.”

Add to this shift the biggest shift in terms of domestic availability of modules soon, thanks to the massive investments in newer technology including HJT by Reliance, and you have a completely different solar evolution underway. Powered by domestically sourced modules, with higher output than ever/.

demand for lower capacity and storage solar inverters.

#2 Domestic Availability of Solar Inverters, Growth of Residential

The solar inverter market in India has always been led by foreign manufacturers, such as ABB, SMA Solar Technology, Huawei, Sungrow, and TMEIC. While their dominance is still there, Indian firms are now entering the solar inverter market as well. Several new players in solar manufacturing are looking to build an integrated facility to produce all PV value chain components, from polysilicon to solar modules. Among those looking at wafer manufacturing are big private Indian conglomerates such as Reliance and Jindal India Solar Energy. Even Coal India Limited, one of the world’s largest miners has announced a plan for wafer and cell manufacturing soon.  In August 2022, Reliance announced its plans to invest in power electronics with Jamnagar becoming the largest such hub in the world.  With the Adani Group’s penchant for large acquisitions, don’t rule out a major announcement on that front in the inverter space too.

As per a report by IMARC, “the Indian solar electric system and inverter market size reached 50.1 GW in 2021.” The same report projects the market to touch 262.1 GW by 2027, boasting of a growth rate (CAGR) of 31.8% between 2022-2027.

Studies unanimously agree that while the power utility segment enjoys the largest share in terms of the revenue, the emergence of the residential solar rooftop sector seems promising.

#3 The End of Solar Price Slide

Falling prices, linked to the wholesale adoption of solar manufacturing in China over a decade back, has been the biggest driver of solar growth and adoption worldwide. Throughout 2012-2019, prices dropped close to 90 percent in some cases. That trend has, sadly, reversed since 2020, and the reversal looks likely to hold for now.  Practically every raw material input has been subject to higher volatility in prices, be it the metals involved, or the starting building block, polysilicon, over 90% of which comes from China. On top of that, demand has remained robust, ensuring takers are available even at relatively higher prices for large manufacturers.  While the super normal profits of Chinese manufacturers showcase this rising trend, even as new manufacturing capacity tempers these increases, a return to 2019 price levels seems a distant possibility now.

Further, as domestic solar manufacturers – like Tata Power, AGEL, Websol, and Borosil Renewables – keep on increasing their share in the market, the government is bound to protect them from foreign competition. The government has provided incentives, direct and indirect, such as the Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for integrated manufacturing of high-efficiency solar PV modules, the domestic content requirement scheme, basic customs duty on imports, and the Approved List of Models and Manufacturers. The prices will stay at around the current levels, if not more, for a few years until the domestic players grow to become more competitive with foreign players. Even outside India, domestic manufacturing push in key markets across Europe and the US means consumers will be lucky to see stable prices, with the odds in favour of rising prices, in a high inflation scenario across markets today.

#4 Rooftop Solar as a Gigawatt Scale Opportunity

40 GW of rooftop solar (RTS) and 60 GW for utility-scale or ground-mounted projects. That was the bland breakup of India’s revised target of 100 GW of solar by 2022.  Although utility-scale solar has seen tremendous progress with leading players lining up for projects, tariffs spiralling down and government agencies pushing mega projects, RTS remained neglected. In fact, the shortfall in rooftop solar is almost completely responsible for India falling well short of its 100 GW target for 2022. This year, of around 19 GW of solar capacity that is expected to be added in 2022 – 15.8 GW from utility-scale and 3.5 GW from rooftop solar. These are record breaking numbers, and importantly for rooftop solar, the highest ever by a margin.

As the prices of electricity from sources like coal, gas, and diesel witness a rise, more and more firms are making use of their rooftops to generate electricity for commercial and industrial purposes. With rooftop solar gaining momentum, numerous job opportunities are in the offing. Akanksha Tyagi, Programme Associate, CEEW goes on to say, “Rooftop solar has  a greater employment potential than utility-scale solar. Our analysis finds that rooftop solar deployment creates eight times more full-time equivalent jobs per MW than utility scale solar.”

As compared to utility-scale plants, higher levels of skill and even manpower are required with rooftop solar projects since there is certain expertise that is needed for the installation of PV panels over rooftops.

For firms and households benchmarking to final power costs,  the initial setup cost is also more acceptable, even with pricier domestic modules in many cases, as long as they are the right quality. Back this with what seems to be a genuine push this time to actually make the rooftop push work, by way of a national subsidy portal and simpler rules, and we see high expectations from this segment. The national leader, Gujarat has already shown the possibilities, with its rooftop solar additions outpacing every other state, and creating  huge number of opportunities within the state for solar start ups to take root. Quite simply, the success of rooftop solar, at both corporate and residential levels, remains key to India meeting its 2030 goals even today.

#5 New O&M Trends

As firms invest in solar with a clear eye on ROI and the bottomline, there is increased focus on efficiency, and linked to that O&M of solar plants. A WoodMackenzie report states that the “global solar operations and maintenance spend is on track for a fourfold increase by 2030.”

In India, start ups like Skilancer Solar, which offers  robotic cleaning systems for solar plants is a testimony to the rising importance of O&M in the solar sector. With a strong portfolio of clienteles in its kitty- Tata Power, Adani Power, NTPC, ReNew Power to name a few- the firm has sold more than 950 robots. Neeraj Kumar, Co-Founder & Director, Skilancer Solar, offers insights into the O&M trends in the solar industry- one of which is automation, “When solar panels are cleaned after a period of 15 days, there is 15 to 20 per cent efficiency loss. But with robots, they can be cleaned daily. Besides, we offer dry cleaning services, thereby saving water.”

The significant drop in prices in the O&M services is a major reason why the industry is taking it more seriously than before, Neeraj Kumar establishes, “Initially, the price per kW was INR 10. Now it was reduced to INR 3.”

The O&M sector is being supplemented with sensors, forecasting, trackers, cloud for data analysis, drone analysis, and artificial intelligence to additionally compare the effort invested in the cleaning with returns on efficiency, Kumar reveals further.

Against such a backdrop, it explains why solar panel cleaning kits on Amazon are also beginning to gain popularity.

Jaimin Parikh, Managing Director, JP Solar Energy, which is among the many firms that make these kits today, makes the case for cleaning of solar panels, that is driving investments into it, “If the solar panels are not cleaned properly, the efficiency gets reduced by almost 50% of its optimum output. Suppose you have installed 1kw and you have not cleaned the panels for about 10 or 15 days, the efficiency of the panels reduces from 1 kw to 500w. There are many factors like sand, bird droppings, dust, debris, and other contaminants such as leaves and bugs, which could further reduce efficiency. So, it is vital that you get your panels cleaned and regularly wash using the automatic system.”

Other specialised O&M firms have also seen the opportunity, and like wind, which requires very high level investments, large scale solar is also seeing O&M firms target the larger solar plants in India. It’s an opportune time as the market reaches maturity in terms of a critical mass of projects. Interestingly, it is PSU energy firms, which tend to outsource regularly, that are providing many opportunities currently, with domestic players like Jakson Group doing particularly well in this market.

The Wave of Newer Technologies

Dr Omkar Jani of Reliance, which is investing heavily into manufacturing and HJT technology for modules  asserts  that “Indian manufacturers are realising that there is a payback when they invest in next-generation technology.” A close study of the market further affirms that manufacturers, with their sights firmly set on higher efficiency levels, are riding a new wave of technologies that are proving to be a gamechanger. In the process, older technologies are making way for newer ones.  To cite an example, polycrystalline is being fast replaced by mono PERC cells. At the same time, the newer technologies that seem to be taking the market by storm are HJT (heterojunction technology), TopCon and more. Vineet Mittal goes a step further and terms ‘HJT’, ‘Topcon’ as technologies of the future. Dr Omkar Jani calls HJT “novel technology” yet a “simple technology to manufacture” and more efficient, where scale will also drive lower costs eventually.

The new interest in HJT, hitherto seen as a niche, premium technology due to higher costs has been quick and widespread. It brings together the best of both the worlds of crystalline silicon cells and thin-film technology all in a single-cell structure. Goldi Solar, a leading domestic module manufacturer  is a case in point. Recently, the firm came up with a 710 Wp bifacial solar module on HJT made with 132 half-cells. Says Bharat Bhut, “It is the fusion of thin film and silicon” while enlisting its benefits, “It boasts of longer generation, low term coefficient, very high efficiency, reduces BOS cost, land cost- bringing down the LCOE of the project by 6.6%.  Thus, there is a huge saving on ROI.”

There is also a notable shift from p-type panels to n-type panels, which is a kind of wafer that has a degradation of less than 0.4 per cent. The latter, though already prominent in the western world, has entered into the Indian industry only now. Spark Solar, another domestic  manufacturer of high-performance solar panels, is one firm that has launched TOPCon, n-type 700w panel.

Chinese global majors like Jinko Solar have also been capitalising on the latest technologies that promise greater efficiency with the introduction of their N-type TopCon technology, which boasts of 5 to 6% higher energy generation when compared to MONO Perc.  The  Tiger Neo modules feature Multi-Busbar (MBB) and half-cut cell technology along with bifacial feature to further augment efficiency. Reliance is also looking to increase HJT module efficiency to 26% by 2026 from the current 23% levels. The solar PV module and cell factory may start production in 2024 and scale up in phases in the next couple of years.

Smaller, younger firms like Rayzon Solar tell us that for the next year, it will be “ready” to add technologies like TopCon and HJT.

Other Trends to Watch Out For

Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV)

BIPV has begun to to make an impact with  improvement in both aesthetics and efficiency, especially where rooftop area is limited and cannot have solar plants. Firms like Spark Solar are giving a makeover to conventional solar with at least 100 variations of BIPV, including coloured and designer variant. In a telling trend, IOCL and BEST Buses are among the clients of coloured BIPVs.

The New Solar Destination- Gujarat

Gujarat seems to be at the heart of the solar industry- the nucleus of the solar industry, where more and more large scale projects are springing up by the moment. Leaders from the industry unanimously agree that government-led initiatives have been instrumental in catalysing these projects. Dr Omkar Jani offers his views on the subject, “Over the past decade, major innovations have been sparked in Gujarat. It is interesting to note that the entire resident (rooftop) programme has been shifted to an online platform making it easier, more transparent. Other States should follow suit.” At last count, over 70% of fresh manufacturing capacity seemed to be headed Gujarat’s way, besides well over 50% of existing national manufacturing capacity in modules. It’s become a self-fulfilling cycle, attracting more and more players to the state, which offers the attraction of  strong connectivity, demand, policy and predictability.

Round-the-Clock Power

Going forward, RTC is going to define the next decade, or even this one, as per Dr Omkar Jani. “We are tending to max out the amount of solar we can use on a standalone basis as the grid does start having issues if you’re pumping in solar. RTC can work well without having to schedule power.”

It is estimated that RTC power will make up 5% of renewable power by 2025. Though the share seems small, it is a good jump as currently, it stands at nil.


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