Kolkata: The West Bengal government has taken “a bold stand" on renewable energy by deciding it will not chase the ambitious target set by the centre to generate 5,336 megawatts (MW) of solar power by 2022, experts said.

The state currently has an installed capacity to generate 70-80MW of solar power, which would be ramped up to around 200MW in a year, said S.P. Gon Chaudhuri, former director of West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation. The state needs private participation to meet its target for 2022, he said.

While confirming the figure, key state government officials at the power department said the state had taken a policy decision that it will not invest aggressively to ramp up renewable energy generation capacity.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has taken a bold decision at a time when most states are blindly following the centre’s diktat over renewable energy at great risk to their own finances, said a former bureaucrat and independent expert on power who asked not to be named.

Officials at the power department in Kolkata cited several reasons for the state’s decision. Insolation in West Bengal, or the amount of solar radiation that the state receives, is much less than states with favourable conditions such as Gujarat and Rajasthan. Hence, return on investment in West Bengal will be much worse than in the western states, the officials said, asking not to be identified. If required for compliance, the state would buy renewable energy from other states, they said.

Also, if private individuals were allowed to generate solar power through rooftop installations of up to 5 kilowatt-peak (kWp), the incremental supply would disrupt the tariff structure of distribution companies, they said.

Distribution companies charge more per unit from subscribers who consume more, under a cross-subsidy model aimed at making power affordable to small users. If urban households started to install solar panels on rooftops, they would consume less from the distribution firms, disrupting the tariff structure.

Only people with surplus cash can install solar panels. As an inducement, the centre provides subsidy for such installations of up to 5kWp. However, it is feared that generation from such sources would make power more expensive for small users who cannot afford such installations, said the state government officials.

A rooftop installation of 5kWp generates at peak capacity of 5 kilowatt-hour of power in an hour. The restriction was imposed to discourage people from setting up rooftop panels, but a dilution is being considered, said the state government officials. The potential impact of lowering the threshold to 1-2kWp on revenues of distribution companies is being assessed, they said. “I am not opposed to renewable energy, but it must make financial sense for every state," said the independent expert quoted before.

West Bengal does not have as much arid land as other states such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. So it is almost impossible to set up large solar power plants in West Bengal, said the expert. As a rule of thumb, it takes 4-5 acres to generate 1MW of solar power.

Also, there is substantial thermal power generation capacity lying idle. The centre has envisaged scaling up renewable energy generation capacity to 175 gigawatts by 2022. Even if only 125GW were to be achieved, capacity utilisation, or plant load factor, of existing thermal power plants would plunge to unviable levels, he said, adding it is a better idea for states such as West Bengal to buy renewable energy if required for compliance than invest to build their own generation capacities.

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