A scorching summer sun is the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Chennai for many. The most common jibe at the city’s unforgiving weather is that Chennai has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest.
While Chennaiites have acclimatised themselves to the heat amidst all these jokes and memes, they have yet to embrace fully the ways to turn that into an advantage. By harnessing the power of the sun.
Solar energy as a renewable energy resource has gained immense popularity over the past decades. So much so, that Tamil Nadu is home to the largest solar power park in the world. Yet, Chennai lags behind other cities in terms of tapping into solar, with very few independent houses ( one of the least in a city-wide comparison) embracing rooftop solar power generation.
There have been efforts on the part of the government to encourage households to opt for solar power generation, with the Chief Minister’s Domestic Rooftop Solar Incentive Scheme. Under this scheme, independent houses or flats in Tamil Nadu with grid-connected rooftop solar panel set-ups can avail a subsidy of Rs 20,000 for 1 KWp. But the question remains why despite such an incentive, there are very few takers for solar power in sunny Chennai.
Citizen Matters brought together a panel of experts to get their thoughts on why there is such reluctance among Chennaiites to embrace solar and what can be done to remedy it. The panel comprised solar energy advocate D Suresh, popularly known as Solar Suresh, K Vishnu Mohan Rao, Senior Researcher, Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), Jayanthi RV, Principal Architect at Coral Architects and N Ramanathan, a solar consumer.
What ails solar uptake in Chennai?
The discussion kicked off with the panelists offering their views on why Chennai finds itself behind cities like Pune on rooftop solar power generation. A few reasons put forth by the panelists:
Lack of awareness: Despite some campaigns around solar energy, citizens still lack awareness on solar and the policy around it. Thus, while there may be broad knowledge of the benefits of solar energy, potential consumers often shy away from implementing the same in their households due to unawareness around important details: how solar panels function, the ways in which the accrued benefits could help in cutting costs and the support from the government that is available to those opting for solar.
Lax nodal authorities: Nodal bodies such as TANGEDCO, TEDA and TNEGA have not been proactive in the promotion of solar energy and in resolving complaints by existing consumers who have opted for solar. The discussion raised points on how there were long delays in providing net meters to those who opted for rooftop solar at their homes, irregularities in the transfer of credit for those generating excess power that is fed into the grid and the calculation of tariffs after installation of solar. The panelists also mentioned that the ground staff working with consumers were not sensitized to clarify basic questions that might arise during the process.
Conflict of interest: TANGEDCO, the agency that is the electric utility provider for the state through its subsidiaries, is also the agency in charge of promotion of solar power. When a consumer moves away from conventional electricity to solar, the utility provider stands to lose long term revenue. When a consumer becomes self-sufficient by using solar power, the utility provider stands to lose.
Questions arose over this inherent conflict of interest, whether it could discourage the utility provider from promoting wider use of solar power. The existential threat to utility providers can only be combatted through a dedicated strategy in moving towards renewable energy.
What Chennaiites must know
While there are challenges, panelists agreed unanimously that solar must be the way forward for Chennai. Participants in the discussion called for a change in the attitude towards solar energy. While the average consumer could be daunted by the initial investment, the returns made over time would more than offset the costs incurred.
Some of the panelists also felt that the switch to solar energy must be looked at through the lens of making a choice to safeguard the environment and take a step towards sustainable living, rather than merely as a cost-saving exercise. Consumers must consider investing in solar a better prospect than buying a car or an AC.
As for practical concerns on how to set up solar connections on rooftops, seeking knowledge from those in the field and organisations working to promote solar energy could provide potential consumers the necessary insights to make the choices that will benefit them.
Individuals such as Solar Suresh, who has built a few fully sustainable home in the city, and organisations such as the Citizen, consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) could be contacted to learn the truth behind the various myths around solar energy and obtain practical tips for installation of solar rooftop systems in Chennai.
Panelists also urged potential consumers to only seek out empanelled vendors authorised to supply rooftop panels so as not to fall prey to fraud.
The way forward
Individual action — spurred by a concern for the environment and the prospect of savings on electricity bills — may be the primary driver of adoption of solar energy in the city. However, to scale up the impact and turn it into a long-term solution, a dedicated renewable energy policy with enforceable targets is necessary.
Tamil Nadu became the first state to come up with a solar policy in 2012. A new policy with changes was also launched in 2019. However, panelists urged the state to build in policy mandates for solar so newer buildings could be built with the necessary provisions.
Jayanthi RV argued that unless there is a mandate for solar as a necessary pre-requisite for approval of building plans, newer homes and large apartment complexes will not be incentivised to adopt solar.
A contrary view, however, came from Solar Suresh who pointed used the example of poor state of rainwater harvesting in the city to highlight that built in policy mandates may not necessarily provide effective solutions. He instead urged those who have embraced solar to turn into advocates and model citizens. They should be the ones to showcase its benefits to those in their neighbourhoods and educate them on basic facts, such as how those with solar are insulated for power tariff hikes.
Watch the rest of the discussion here: