Interview: Solar Thermal in India- To be or not to be?

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Lavleen Singhal talks about his initiatives in promoting solar thermal technologies in India, solar thermal vs. solar PV debate and his views on the National Solar Mission and the 2010 solar energy market for India.

Lavleen Singal is a serial entrepreneur and Founder of Acira Solar, a solar thermal power producer. Acira Solar has technology partnerships with international technology companies that have been involved in the development and operation of solar thermal power projects. Lavleen has a Master’s in Physics and MBA from USA. Lavleen may be contacted at

Can you kindly start with a quick background about Acira Solar, Its products and objectives?

Acira Solar is a Joint Venture company with the engineers who designed, developed, installed, operated and improved the performance of 9 solar thermal power plants (called Solar Electric Generation Systems or Luz) in California with a total capacity of 354 MW. The plants have been in operation since 1984 and are have generated 800 million KWh of power sufficient to power 200,000 homes. Luz is an industry benchmark. 

The team is currently executing 3 projects in Spain (engineering design complete – construction to started). In India, we propose to set up a 50 MW STPP in Rajasthan and have made good progress in site selection (irradiation data) and power evacuation. We plan to increase its capacity to utility scale.The company also has an exclusive arrangement with a company highly specialized in offering consultancy and technical services on solar resource evaluation and characterization, by applying methodologies developed by researchers in Spain since 1985.

Acira Solar with its partnerships provide end-to-end services for solar thermal technologies with economic feasibilities, technical performance and guaranteed electricity output which includes pre-project evaluation, due diligence towards financial closure, project implementation, operation and maintenance services.
Is solar thermal equipment and installation more cost effective than PV? Why/why not?

Solar Thermal technologies generate steam at high temperatures to drive conventional steam turbines and therefore easily integrated with conventional power plants. This can be achieved either by reheating the waste heat from existing gas turbine based power plants (Integrated Solar Combine Cycle - ISCC) or using fossil fuels to augment generation from solar thermal power plants (Hybrid).

The solar component could vary from 15% (ISCC) to 85% (hybrid), help generate electricity at competitive prices and reduce the carbon footprint. One of the biggest advantages of solar thermal is the ability to economically store thermal heat to generate and supply electricity during peak demand and when the sun is down at night or when there is cloud cover. Solar thermal technologies are also becoming popular to desalinate water economically and for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) applications.

After its introduction in 1984, and solar thermal power plants in operation since, realizing its importance in the long term, recent impetus provided by several Govts. notably USA and Spain, has seen more than 4 GW capacity under installation, likely to be completed within the next 3 years. Capacity of 11 GW is under planning for implementation within the next 5 years. Increase in demand for solar thermal components would help manufacturers achieve economic capacities, spur competition and investments in research and development to reduce costs and improve efficiencies for achieving faster parity with conventional power plants.

Solar thermal technologies are currently more cost effective than PV technologies, and considered more suitable for large scale power generation. PV technologies are becoming popular in regions where solar irradiation is less and for rooftop installations on commercial and residential buildings. With recent decreases in prices of solar cells, PV technologies are increasingly being used for grid connected power generation as well.

It is our considered opinion that solar thermal technologies would achieve price parity with conventional power within the next decade. Given the right policy and initiatives, it would be possible to achieve grid parity faster in India due to higher proportion of manpower and material content which are readily available at lower costs.

India regulator CERC has determined the tariff from solar technologies as Rs. 15.30 and 17.91 per kWh for solar thermal and PV grid connected power plants respectively.

While solar photovoltaic technology is being used quite extensively for both commercial and residential applications, where mainly do you think solar thermal would fit in?

Solar thermal technologies may be categorized according to the temperature achieved and their applications. Lower temperature applications include hot water for domestic and commercial usage; medium temperature applications include industrial process heat and cooling, refrigeration and HVAC for domestic and commercial buildings while high temperature applications include water desalination and power generation.

In the National Solar Mission, a lot of emphasis has been laid on solar thermal technologies. Are there any solar thermal plants in India? What are the main hindrances in the development of this technology at a larger scale in India?

Many Indian companies have been actively and successfully promoting low temperature solar thermal technologies through product development and innovation. Currently, there are 9 plants with a combined capacity of 354 MW operating in California since 1984, 64 MW in Nevada (2007), 3 plants of 50 MW in Spain (2009). Projects for 4 GW capacity are under various stages of implementation and expected to be completed within the next 3 years. Solar thermal parabolic trough technology is mature, proven and ‘bankable’.

Solar thermal power projects are in various stages of implementation in Australia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, China, South Africa, Iran and Israel.

A demonstration plant of 500 KW was built and operated in 1989 – 90 at the Solar Energy Center, Gurgaon. It is believed that the plant shut down due to lack of funds. A 135 MW ISCC plant was planned in 1992 to be located in Maithania, Rajasthan. Project feasibility was conducted and financial closure was achieved, but the project was never started.

For development and deployment of solar thermal technologies it is essential that the policy provides
• Long term framework that attracts investments for solar power generation, manufacturing technology and research and development
• Adequate ground support to facilitate the implementation of solar thermal projects (clearances, land water and power evacuation arrangements etc.)
• Strong regulatory environment that favors the implementation of solar and other renewable technologies (feed-in-tariff support, renewable procurement obligation from solar, solar renewable energy certificates, bankable PPAs and legal framework for timely implementation)
• Time bound economic stimulus to provide the necessary impetus for the initial support and development of solar thermal technologies

In view of the National Solar Mission where the government plans to generate 20,000 MW by 2022, do you think the mission is too ambitious? What role do you think solar thermal might play in reaching the target?

One of the main objectives of NSM is that solar thermal technologies achieve price parity with gas-based power plants by 2022 and with coal thereafter. The technical potential for generating power from solar thermal technologies exceeds India’s total power demands twofold. At current prices, the economic cost would be humungous. Policy initiatives like the NSM backed by credible impetus for investments in power generation, manufacturing, research and development would lead to significant cost reduction. Considering India’s depleting coal reserves, insecurity and high costs associated with gas based power plants, depleting global fossil resources, pressure to reduce carbon footprint (more than half of it from power generation) India’s energy security depends on its ability to harness solar energy economically. Solar thermal technologies, given its high ‘indigenization’ potential, hold the best promise.

Global capacity of solar thermal power generation is expected to be in excess of 20 GW by 2020. India’s target of deploying 20 GW capacity by 2022 from solar thermal and PV technologies therefore is likely to be exceeded provided it receives the right impetus through long term policy initiatives.

We expect solar thermal technologies to gain prominence globally with significant innovation and cost reduction by 2015 through the deployment of over 10 GW capacity. Therefore given India’s industrial prowess and appetite, it would be possible to deploy solar thermal power projects of 20 GW alone by 2022. This would be in addition to the capacity deployed using solar PV technologies and exceed the Mission targets.

How does the 2010 market look for solar energy in India? Are there any special long term or short term incentives/ schemes being offered by the government?

The NSM has provided a boost and generated tremendous interest and enthusiasm across all cross sections of the Indian industry.

Since the announcement of NSM (November 2009), new schemes for grid connected power generation have been announced. The implementation of these schemes would take some time and may require fine-tuning during its implementation. It is a step in the right direction and its success would depend on the ability of the decision makers to be flexible, encouraging and non-restrictive.

The NSM has divided its targets in 3 phases (2013, 2017 and 2022). It is our opinion that the targets (and associated economic stimulus) should not be restrictive (1000 MW by 2013) as it may act as a disincentive to development and growth.

The Govt. should also look at options for creating special funds domestically and with international funding organizations necessary for providing stimulus in the initial stages of development and deployment of solar technologies.

All schemes offered by the govt. are available on MNRE web site ( and there are several; 25 year schemes for grid connected solar thermal and PV power plants; special incentives for notified rural areas, one-time subsidy for rural and urban applications. The subsidy schemes are under constant review with specific objectives to meet NSM targets and we expect many more schemes to be announced, with duty concessions and increased budgetary allocations.The solar industry is poised to be a major industry in India.

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Jeremy Levine Design

Views expressed in this article are personal. The data provided is from reliable sources. The calculations shown are based on reasonable assumptions and computed using standard solar modeling and analysis software tools. Recommendations are based on interactions with renewable energy stakeholders.

Author: Roselin Dey