There are many unique and often perplexing challenges to bringing increased solar energy to India. How can you untangle the complexities to deploy large-scale solar power stations that will help address the country¡¯s growing power shortage needs? Let¡¯s take a look at Astonfield¡¯s case.
By Sourabh Sen
Criteria for Selecting the Right Modules for Large-scale Solar Project
Advances in PV development are coming rapidly as companies vie for market share in a fast-moving industry. Increased efficiencies, durability, and cost structures all give developers a wide selection of modules to choose from. As Astonfield evaluates the PV options, identifying the right technology for each of Astonfield¡¯s projects will remain a dynamic equation based on the technology offered by the market at the time of purchase and the site conditions/constraints of each projects.
The selection process goes far beyond comparing the pricing available for different technologies in the market. Astonfield optimizes the equation to arrive at the Lowest Lifetime Cost of Electricity (LCOE). This is driven by module efficiency, the resulting impact on land availability and Balance of System (BOS) cost, and the technologies¡¯sexpected performance in the climate conditions of the site.
But more than price and efficiency, the Indian climate and physical landscape require ¡®battle worthy¡¯ modules. Astonfield selects only those modules that successfully perform in the field in similar projects. The falling costs for both thin film and crystalline combined with variable rises in efficiencies create an ever-changing solar landscape--Astonfield must use strong technology solutions at increasingly lower tariffs to improve the affordability of solar for all of India.
Crystalline delivers higher efficiencies (higher power output per area) than thin film, but thin film delivers a lower cost per watt for the module itself. Given thin film¡¯s performance in high temperature conditions, it is projected to have a performance edge over crystalline in areas such as India¡¯s Thar Desert region covering Rajasthan and Gujarat, as it combines high insulation with high temperatures.
Selecting the Right Solar Manufacturer
Evaluating the solar manufacturer is also important, which is why Astonfield works exclusively with companies that possess large balance sheets and strong warranties in order to ensure that their modules perform at maximum levels for 25 years. When selecting a PV module manufacturer, you need to first ensure that they have a strong belief in India as the market of the future for solar power. This is critical as India presents different challenges and opportunities for manufacturers and requires a solid corporate commitment to succeed long-term in the market.
For Astonfield, those manufacturers that prove their long-term commitment must also bring a proven history of delivering quality, durable modules that will yield maximum performance for the life of the project. This includes consideration of the product warranty provided by the manufacturer. As a developer, Astonfield works to ensure that the manufacturer can guarantee performance and offer warranties on the modules for the life of the project. Global standards for warranties typically cover minimum expected efficiencies at 90% for 10 years and 80% for 25 years. Therefore, holding your module providers to that standard is important.
In addition to performance and long-term viability, a manufacturer must also provide competitive pricing in order to be chosen by Astonfield. Since module costs typically run 50% or more of the overall project, the price of the module must fit into the overall financial equation to allow for commercially viable returns for any given project.
Astonfield requires its manufacturer be in a financially sound position to back their product and their warranty, should anything go wrong. They also look at the manufacturer¡¯s history for timely delivery since nobody wants to be waiting on delayed equipment. The faster you get a project up and running, the faster you can supply power to the grid
A Winning Technology Strategy for India
Astonfield pursues a technology neutral approach. Instead of sourcing from a single supplier or focusing on one technology, Astonfield maintains strong sourcing relationships with a select number of leading global module manufacturers in Europe, America, Asia, and India to deliver top-tier solutions to the Indian market. This allows the company to optimize the economics of each of their projects and lead the drive to solar grid parity in India.
This strategy creates a win-win approach for all parties. Astonfield gets top quality modules for their Indian projects and commercially viable returns for project investors, without betting exclusively on a single technology that may not be cost competitive 3-4 years from now. At the same time, the manufacturers benefit from the assurance that Astonfield will be a long-term core customer for India, which in turn allows them to make investments to expand operations in the market.
Developing a Local Workforce
At the heart of any community, there is a need to develop and support the local workforce. Astonfield¡¯s business model creates much needed local jobs at its project sites. The workforce for a typical solar project can be categorized in four main stages: research and development, manufacture, installation, and maintenance. The first two stages require relatively few jobs per MW, estimated at 1-2 jobs per MW and 3-4 jobs per MW, respectively.
Installation generates the bulk of employment at approximately 33 jobs per MW, whereas maintenance generates about 10 jobs per MW. As there are relatively few moving parts in a standard solar PV system, maintenance requirements are limited compared to conventional power plants.
Navigating the Land Acquisition Process
During the land acquisition process, developers may need to jump through regulatory hoops and navigate sensitive community issues. Since land acquisition processes vary from state to state, Astonfield has assembled a land team specifically tasked with the challenge of moving quickly through the Indian regulatory system. Composed of professionals fluent in the languages and regulations of its different markets, the land team works collaboratively to identify common solutions to common problems, such as verifying land deed ownership in the case of land acquisition, and securing government approvals in the case of long-term leases.
More than getting government approval for land acquisitions, Astonfield feels that it is important to have community buy-in for all of their projects, and as such, one key approach utilized by the land teams requires active community education and involvement. For a project in West Bengal, for instance, the Astonfield team hosted a luncheon for the local community to gain better insight into their needs and expectations. In coordination with the Panchayat (District or County), the team secured buy-in and accelerated land acquisition efforts by educating the local landowners about the economic and employment benefits realized by having a renewable energy power plant in their community.
SpeedingTime to Completion
One of solar¡¯s biggest benefits to power-starved nations such as India is the speed at which it can be commissioned. With the right technology and experience, a utility-scale solar power plant can be financed, erected, and commissioned in as few as 12 months from the point of signing a Power Purchase Agreement with the government.
To ensure swift, seamless execution, Astonfield has partnered with experienced EPCs from Europe with hundreds of MWs of installation experience. These partners bring a wealth of seasoned knowledge and perspective on optimizing the performance of the system and staying within the time constraints imposed by the government.
Balancing Scale and Margin in the India Market
There has been some speculation that supplier¡¯s profit margins in India are small. As in most other domestic industries, the solar sector in India is very much a scale play, not a margin play. Astonfield has worked very closely with leading global suppliers to educate them on the demand created by the National Solar Mission and various state solar programs over the next decade.
Sourabh Sen is Co-chairman of Astonfield Renewable Resources (www.astonfield.com), a pioneer in the Indian solar industry.
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