One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's biggest strengths is that he does not believe in incrementalism when he sits down to formulate policy. He thinks big - and his targets are almost always humongous. Witness his targets for Make in India, for coal mining and thermal power production, as well as the goals he has set in a range of other areas.
Even by his standards, though, the target for solar power by 2022 is colossal. By that year, he wants to have an installed and working capacity of 100 GW in solar. India's solar capacity at the moment is 3.3 GW. Currently, the total installed solar capacity in the world is 177 GW. The nation producing the highest amount of solar energy today - Germany - has only 38 GW. No other country, including the US, has set itself such an ambitious goal. Meeting that target for India would mean adding 15 GW of solar capacity every year. The highest addition that any country has done in a single year is 12 GW. The feat was achieved by China. But even China has not been able to repeat it.
There is much to be said in favour of improving our solar energy capacity. Most parts of India get abundant sunlight throughout the year. Solar energy costs are dropping dramatically as technology improves - it used to cost Rs 15 or more to produce 1 kWh of energy five or six years ago, now it costs Rs 6-7. In another five years, the cost of solar energy could well fall to the levels of thermal energy, or even lower. Also, solar is a great solution for remote areas - you could use rooftop panels to produce enough power for communities that are not serviced by the main grids. Finally, solar is clean energy - it will do wonders to our environment if we reduce our dependence on coal-fired plants.
But solar energy also has myriad problems that make it less practical than conventional energy. First, it works only when the sun is shining - which means at night, you cannot depend on solar power. Nor can you depend on it during monsoons or winters when there might be fog. This means you have to "blend" it in your grid with thermal energy - and that poses all sorts of practical problems. Then, largescale solar energy farms require huge tracts of land. Per GW, solar requires twice as much land as a conventional coal-fired power plant. Finally, capital costs of solar installation are higher.
Solar experts and bureaucrats privately say that 100 GW by 2022 seems an impossible dream. Sure, a technology breakthrough could alter the equation. But at the moment, a more practical target would be half or one-third of the number Modi has set. As an aside, the UPA 2 government had set a target of 20,000 MW (20 GW) by 2022, and that was also considered by many to be a stretch target.
My view is that even if Modi does not achieve 100 GW - and ends up with only half that - it would still be a giant step forward. And no mean achievement for any government in the world.