Solar Power in India: Apps Help Shine Solar Energy on Rooftops of Indian Homes

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Just six months ago, New Delhi-based Avdesh Kumar was a painter struggling to find enough work. Now the newly trained solar technician’s phone rings with several job applications every day.

Having recently joined renewable energy company SunEdison, Kumar is a key link between India’s growing number of rooftop solar power providers and citizens switching to green power at home.

“A few months ago, I didn’t even know it was a job and there was a demand,” the 34-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his home in the Indian capital.

“But now I have four or five customer visits a day,” Kumar said, explaining how using SunEdison’s app has helped him meet the growing demand for maintenance work from panel owners. rooftop solar panels for their stand-alone systems to operate efficiently.

It’s one of the few digital platforms of its kind – including AHA Solar Rooftop Helper, SunPro+ and the Surya Mitra app – that have sprung up to connect solar maintenance experts looking for work with customers who need cleaning and repair services.

Delivering these services more efficiently is seen as key to helping promote and achieve the goals of India’s renewable energy push, which aims to steer the South Asian country away from its dependence on fossil fuels, including including coal.

This month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed a major clean energy project to make Modhera in western Gujarat state the world’s first 24-hour solar-powered village, 7 days a week, citizens generate their own electricity from 1,300 rooftop systems.

The key to the project’s success – and ensuring sustainable power generation – will depend on properly maintaining the systems, say the researchers, citing numerous examples of poor after-sales service leading to rooftop solar projects obsolete.

“In villages, if a battery fails, the solar lights connected to it turn off and stay that way,” said Aviram Sharma, assistant professor at Nalanda University in Bihar, who has conducted research on micro -solar networks in rural areas.

Remote villages lack shops where people can get a solar system repaired, unlike mobile phones, he said.

“As a result, it stops working forever,” Sharma added.

India has fallen behind on its goal of installing 40 gigawatts (GW) of rooftop solar power capacity by the end of 2022.

An April report from consultancy JMK Research and the non-profit Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) predicted a capacity shortfall of 25 GW this year.

The high cost of installing solar systems – which can range from 40,000 to 80,000 Indian rupees ($482 to $964) for a 1 kilowatt system – has deterred many potential consumers, suppliers say.

For the ever-increasing number of rooftop solar panel owners across India, keeping them in business is the main concern.

“Our market research has shown early adopters of rooftop solar have had very poor experiences,” said Vivek Kumar, who leads operations and maintenance at SunEdison.

“No one is selling the experience of going solar to a consumer. It’s sold as a one-time investment that ends with installation. Maintenance is not discussed,” he added.

‘FLY BY NIGHT’


A key pillar of India’s renewable energy push is creating a workforce capable of operating the solar and wind power plants being set up across the country to meet the growing demand for electricity.

However, six years after the launch of a national skills program, less than a third of the nearly 80,000 participants trained to install solar panels, connect them to grids and maintain batteries have found jobs, according to data from the government.

Meanwhile, residents struggle to get their solar power systems repaired when they have a problem, consumer groups say.

“There are still a number of overnight operators who install a rooftop system and then disappear,” said K. Vishnu Mohan Rao, senior researcher with the nonprofit Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group.

The problem is exacerbated by a fragmented supply chain – with various parts made by different companies, he added.

In Gujarat, which accounts for more than 80% of India’s rooftop solar installations, physical stores are not visible in any of the cities in the state, said Pulkit Dhingra, Founder and Director of AHA! Solar, a company providing solar technology solutions.

“In many cases companies are required to maintain the system for five years, but they don’t see any value in it,” he said.

“In the hyper-competitive market, with low profit margins, the focus is only (on) installation,” added Dhingra, whose company is also helping Gujarat implement the state’s solar policy. .

In rural India, where solar power is used to power water pumps, light health centers, homes and schools, the lack of a directory of solar technicians is making the situation worse, researchers say.

“It involves days of trying to contact suppliers (and) video calls over patchy networks to try to explain the problem to a technician in a city,” said Dheeraj Kumar Gupta, senior energy program associate at the World Resources Institute India, a research organization.

Even though an annual maintenance contract is signed when installing a rooftop solar system, it is often not fulfilled as the villages are too far for the technicians to travel, local electricians being hired instead when a quick fix is ​​needed, he added.

WAY FORWARD


The federal government and Indian states are trying to wean themselves off fossil fuels to meet climate targets as public awareness of global warming rises and electricity becomes more expensive.

In Gujarat, Rajendra Mistry, project manager of the state power utility, is tasked with documenting lessons learned from the 24/7 solar power project in Modhera.

“The lessons learned from this project will shape the planning of many other ongoing projects,” Mistry said in an interview.

The two main challenges in the rooftop solar industry are financing and maintenance, he said. In the case of Modhera, the government covered all costs while a company was hired to keep the systems in good working order.

SunEdison’s Kumar, meanwhile, is monitoring the growth of his company’s app, which connects solar technicians with customers in 83 Indian cities.

“The industry is ready to explode and it makes sense to have a practical workforce ready to grow alongside it,” he said.

Although consumer forums have reported privacy concerns regarding the growing use of these apps and barriers to their adoption, such as poor mobile internet connections in rural areas, they have provided steady work for people such as ‘Avdesh Kumar.

He uploads photos of himself in security gear, as well as the work he has done, to show SunEdison that he is doing a good job and following protocols correctly.

“I am also part of a growing group of technicians and we share our knowledge,” he said. “It makes me learn and grow.”

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