India Builds Solar Plants atop Canals to Save on Land, Water - Is this sustainable?

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VADODARA, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As India moves to ramp up investment in solar power, it is exploring innovative places to install solar plants, including across the top of canals. Last weekend, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated a new "canal-top" solar energy plant in Vadodara district in India's western state of Gujarat. "I saw more than glittering panels – I saw the future of India and the future of our world," said Ban. "I saw India's bright creativity, ingenuity and cutting-edge technology." Experts identify two major advantages in building solar plants atop canals: efficient and cheap land use, and reduced water evaporation from the channels underneath. Earlier this month, India showed it is serious about expanding energy production from renewable sources. Prime Minister Narendra Modi upped the country's investment target for solar alone to $100 billion, saying India would scale up solar power to over 10 percent of its total energy mix by 2022. As part of that effort, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy plans to create 100 megawatts (MW) of capacity from grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants built on top of canals and on their banks by the end of the government's latest Five Year Plan in 2017. The ministry will subsidize 30 percent of estimated expenditure of $154 million to construct facilities to meet the canal-top goal. The 10 MW plant on the outskirts of Vadodara city, which began generating power in November, is built across 3.6 km of irrigation canal, and has 33,800 solar panels mounted on steel scaffolding. Connected to the state grid, its output is intended mainly to meet demand from irrigation pumping stations. On a sunny day, the plant generates 50,000 units of electricity (1 unit equals 1 hour of 1,000-watt usage), and is scheduled to produce 16.2 million units in its first year, declining 1 percent annually as the panels degrade. A quarter of the PV panels for the plant were procured from India, with the rest imported from China. Completed in under six months, the plant's $18.3 million cost - including 25 years of operation and maintenance - is recoverable in 13 years, according to Umesh Chandra Jain, chief engineer with Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), the Gujarat government agency that administers this facility and another smaller one.