(pic credit: CAD-IT Consultants)

A year back, I had given a 10 minute speech at Intersolar India on the real challenge for rooftop solar.

Some of my co-speakers felt I had hit the nub, while some others felt I was being pessimistic.

After I finish my post here, you decide which camp you belong to.

My main point was this: No one is really standing in a queue to have solar panels on their rooftops, and there are some real good reasons for this lukewarm perspective.

Let me give you two real life case studies:

Real Life Case Study 1 – Solar Suitcases in Africa

In some countries in Africa, where electricity availability is scarce, pregnancies operations at hospitals can be dangerous, with fatalities dramatically higher than what they are in most other parts of the world. The reason is lack of electricity and specifically lighting, which makes pregnancy operations a hazardous affair. An inventor came up with the idea of solar suitcase which can be used by doctors attending to emergency pregnancy operations. The solar panels in the suitcase ensured that the LED lights were lit wherever the operation was (thankfully, most Africa is blessed with sunlight).

Last I heard, there was a queue for such solar suitcases in specific parts of Africa. And why not? It is solving a real life-and-death problem.

Real Life Case Study 2 – Karnataka Farmer’s Scheme

About a year and half back, Karnataka held an online application for farmers who owned land in the state to apply for ground mounted solar power plants, the power to be sold to the state utility/discom. The price was an attractive Rs 8.4/kWh, much higher than whatever was being offered then by any other discom for ground mounted solar power plants.

The application had to be done online, and I am told that the entire quota of 300 MW was subscribed within one minute from the start of the process. People once again stood in a queue to get an allotment.

We saw above two cases, both real life, both involving solar. In both cases, people stood in a queue for something that solar power offered.

And the reasons are obvious: In the first case, solar power solved a life-or-death problem, and in the second case, solar power provided a significant monetary benefit.

The simple summary – People stand in a queue to buy a product / solution if it solves a big problem or gives a big benefit. While the problem being solved needs to be real and tangible (usually), the big benefit could be either a tangible benefit such as money or an intangible benefit (such as satisfaction, relationship etc – think Apple).

The corollary is of course that: If a product does not solve a big problem or provide a big benefit, don’t expect demand to fall through the roof.

Like it or not, rooftop solar does neither. As a result, it is not a must-have product, it is a nice-to-have product.

Which explains why the hundreds of companies dotting the Indian solar market need to sell really hard to get residences or companies put up solar on their rooftop.

Let us look at why rooftop solar is not a must-have for most end user segments

  1. For residences, the savings that rooftop solar offers is marginal, if at all any, owing to fairly low rates residences pay in most parts of the country. Even in places such as Maharashtra where residential tariff is high, the relatively small number of units that residences consume imply that electricity savings are not going to be a big benefit for most of the households being targetted. Sure, some monetary savings from come from rooftop solar, but unlikely to be something so huge they will stand in a queue to get one.
  2. For industries and commercial sectors, where electricity costs could be a sizable portion of the total costs of operations for many entities, rooftop solar still does not provide a significant benefit. Why? Because, for most of these entities, their limited rooftop areas imply that solar can at best supply 15-20% of their requirements. In rare cases, it can go up to perhaps 30%, and only in select segments such as warehouses (with large rooftop areas and very little power consumption), can contribution from rooftop solar towards total electricity consumption can be significant. Thus, any which way you look, the total savings from adopting solar on the rooftop is not going to be huge. Once again, not enough benefit for the blokes to stand in a queue for rooftop solar.
  3. You may ask – what about energy security during load shedding and power cuts? Here again, if you go for the grid tied route (which is the route for affordable solar power), a pure grid tied solar power plant does not work during power cuts, so you get no extra energy security. A solar-diesel or solar-battery hybrid can work during power cuts, but they can either be too expensive (battery) or result in only nominal reduction of diesel consumption (solar-diesel hybrid), that you do not get any economical energy security that you cannot get otherwise.

I request you to read the above and reflect on those for a few moments. These are realities. And these realities clearly show that rooftop solar is neither solving a big problem nor giving a big benefit.

Well, if we wish the rooftop solar sector to grow much faster, we need to somehow migrate rooftop solar from a nice-to-have category to must-have category.

How do we do that? That is the question.

Your suggestions are welcome.