Energy companies seeking land turn to unconventional locations for solar panel placement
  • Energy companies turn to unusual places to find space for solar panels in India, where land is expensive
  • Smaller projects are turning underutilized spaces into economic opportunities
  • Turning irrigation canals and other spaces into energy producers may help India meet its renewable energy goals.

Canals, fisheries, reservoirs: panels to capture the clean energy of the sun are popping up in the strangest places in India.

Solar installations need a lot of land in high-priced India, which is also one of the most densely populated countries with almost 18% of the world’s population. With big parcels of property scarce, energy companies are focusing less on building huge solar farms and more on placing the panels over irrigation canals and fisheries, on walls and even offshore in reservoirs.

“This shift is to utilize space innovatively and smartly with good monetary savings,” Payal Saxena, manager of strategy consulting at Gensol Engineering, said in written comments to Karma. The push for smaller projects “is very likely to continue to grow with new technology adoptions and design optimization in India.”

Innovations like “solar canals” may help speed growth in the solar industry, but it likely won’t be enough to help the country meet its renewable energy goals. The Indian government in 2015 announced it wanted 175 gigawatts of renewable energy installed by 2022, 100 GW of which would come from the sun. But the country only had 36.8 GW operational at the end of the first quarter of this year, Mercom India Research said, with another 36.9 GW of large-scale solar under construction.

The pandemic, unsurprisingly, dampened growth. In the first quarter, India added 1,080 megawatts, a 43% drop from 1,897 MW installed in the final quarter of 2019, the research firm said. It estimated that only 5 GW would be added this year.

COVID is causing shortages of major equipment like modules and inverters, a ripple from the pandemic-induced shutdown in China, Saxena said. That led to projects being slowed, sometimes to a halt. 

“However, aspirations are high among Indians to achieve the target of 100GW,” Saxena wrote. “Huge efforts are being made by (the) government to achieve the target,” and major power companies are still investing.

The government’s Kusum scheme provides incentives for farmers to install solar irrigation pumps on their land. Farmers save the cost of buying petroleum fuel, and can sell excess energy directly to the government.  

Besides the land savings, smaller solar installations put into active use spaces like roofs and boundary walls, while placing panels over canals prevents water evaporation.

The innovative attempts to find canal space for solar panels in India dates back several years. A pilot project was touted in 2012, leading to the first large-scale canal-top solar power plant in the Vadodara district of Gujarat three years later. But “the growth of smaller projects was “quite enthusiastic in the last 2-3 years,” Saxena said.