India has made significant progress in creating capacity for solar energy generation in the last few years. The Prime Minister’s emphasis since 2014 has given a new fillip to solar power installation. The unit costs of solar power have fallen, and solar energy has become increasingly competitive with alternative sources of energy. India expanded its solar generation capacity eight times from 2,650 MW on May 26, 2014 to over 20 GW on January 31, 2018, and 28.18 GW on March 31, 2019. The government had an initial target of 20 GW of solar capacity by 2022, which was achieved four years ahead of schedule. In 2015, the target was raised to 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022.
This rapid progress should have been made earlier, however. India is energy deficient, yet blessed with plenty of sunlight for most of the year. It should have taken a lead in solar panel manufacture to generate solar energy long ago. But because of focus on solar plant installation, India is still not a solar panel manufacturer. Just as India has had no overall industrial policy since economic reforms began, there is no real plan in place to ensure solar panel manufacture.
The share of all manufacturing in GDP was 16% in 1991; it remained the same in 2017. The solar power potential offers a manufacturing opportunity. The government is a near monopolistic buyer. India is regarded by the global solar industry as one of the most promising markets, but low-cost Chinese imports have undercut its ambitions to develop its own solar technology suppliers. Imports, mostly from China, accounted for 90% of 2017 sales, up from 86% in 2014.
So we may not see domestic players, in the short term at least, replacing imported ones. While the safeguard duty now puts locally made panels on par with imported ones in terms of cost, the domestic sector needs to do a lot more to be effective. For instance, it will have to go down the supply chain and make the input components locally instead of importing them and putting the modules together here. Public procurement is the way forward. The government is still free to call out bids for solar power plants with the requirement that these be made fully in India. This will not violate any World Trade Organization commitment. However, no bids will be received as manufacturing facilities for these do not exist in the country. But as Ajay Shankar, former Secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, argues, if the bids were large enough with supplies spread over years, which gives enough time for a green field investment to be made for manufacturing in India, then bidders will emerge and local manufacturing can begin.
China’s cost advantage derives from capabilities on three fronts.
Fifteen years ago, the Chinese could also have remained dependent upon imports from Korea or Germany; they did not. Remaining dependent on imports only leads to short-term benefits for India. A continuation of the current approach means India’s energy sector will be in the same condition as its defence industry, where enormous amounts of money have been spent procuring weaponry — so much so that India has been the world’s second largest importer of defence equipment for years.
In the solar panel manufacturing sector, the Indian government allows 100% foreign investment as equity and it qualifies for automatic approval. The government is also encouraging foreign investors to set up renewable energy-based power generation projects on build-own-operate basis. But the Chinese government is clearly adopting an aggressive stance while the demand for solar power in India continues to grow, as does the government’s commitment to renewables. In 2018, China cut financial support to developers and halted approval for new solar projects. As a result, Chinese producers will cut prices to sustain their manufacturing plant capacity utilisation by sustaining exports to India. In other words, the Chinese strategy is to undercut any planned effort by India to develop the entire supply chain capacity within India so that dependence on imports from China continues. As a counter, India needs a solar manufacturing strategy, perhaps like the Automotive Mission Plan (2006-2016), which is credited with making India one of the largest manufacturers of two-wheelers, three-wheelers, four-wheelers and lorries in the world. This would also be a jobs-generating strategy for an increasingly better educated youth, both rural and urban.