Rooftop solar prepares prosumers in Odisha for power cuts during disasters

  • In 2019, during Cyclone Fani, some households in Odisha with off-grid rooftop solar systems, were able to access electricity when conventional power remained cut off for weeks.
  • Now, solar development agencies in Odisha are also giving additional storage facilities for on-grid solar rooftop consumers in cyclone-prone areas in the state for electricity supply during disaster situations.
  • Odisha’s on-grid prosumers, those who produce and consume energy, are reporting reduced power bills after switching to rooftop solar under the net-metering regime. However, expensive installations and lack of timely subsidy from the union government are still some of the challenges for the expansion of rooftop solar in the state.

Piyush Ranjan Rout is an urban planner based in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of the eastern Indian coastal state of Odisha. He had installed a 1kW off-grid solar panel on the roof of his house in 2012, when rooftop solar was still a new concept in Odisha. He took the initiative to install the unit in his own capacity after witnessing the success of solar energy in the households in Freiburg, a German city, where he lived in 2009.

However, he said, he realised the true potential of this clean energy setup in 2019, when cyclone Fani hit his city and his solar panels held him in good stead as the rest of the city faced power cuts.

Following Fani, Bhubaneswar witnessed a complete shutdown of power for more than 15 days due to large scale damages to power supply lines, uprooting of several large trees and other destructions. Government estimates claim infrastructure damages to the tune of Rs. 525 crore (Rs. 5.25 billion).

“Cyclone Fani was the recent cyclone that affected Bhubaneswar and nearby cities very badly. The city was out of power for more than 15 days. People were struggling to get their mobiles charged, get water supply and undertake other important work. There was hardly any mobile network or internet facility then,” Rout told Mongabay-India. Owing to the off-grid virtue of the solar energy supply to his household, he was able to tap energy from the sun every day and was able to store the energy for his electricity needs. “After the warning of an extremely severe cyclone, I removed the panels for two days and after the cyclone ended I installed them again. By that time, the power supply lines got cut off in the entire city. However with my solar energy, I was able to charge my mobile, use my broadband internet and use fans and other electrical appliances, which became a luxury for days after Cyclone Fani had hit the state,” he shared.

He also helped many of his neighbours in getting their mobile charged and sharing internet, all supported by the limited amount of solar energy generated from his solar panel.

Rout comes under the category of ‘prosumers’, which, in the energy sector, refers to the category of individuals/organisations that are producers of energy as well as consumers.

A 2019 photo of a man trying to restore his house on the outskirts of Puri a day after cyclone Fani hit Odisha. Photo by Manish Kumar.

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Another example of a prosumer is J.K. Rath, a sexagenarian industrialist based in Mancheswar in Bhubaneswar who was also relieved of power woes during Cyclone Fani, by solar power generated from his rooftop solar power system.

“During cyclones, many on-grid consumers of solar energy do not get much benefit, as when the power is cut off, conventionally, there is no mechanism to store the energy in households. However, with the help of solar power installation agencies, I got the power connected with my inverter and thus was able to remain connected with electricity during power cuts that were triggered by the cyclone. While most of the households in the city were out of power for several weeks, thanks to solar energy, we were able to use electricity,” Rath told Mongabay-India.

Rath, who had installed a 3kW rooftop solar power system, also claimed that he had been able to save more in his power bills by switching to solar energy. “I installed solar rooftops three years ago in order to reduce my power bills. The results were more than what I was expecting. Earlier, I used to pay around Rs. 4,200-Rs. 5,000 per month as electricity bills. But after installing solar panels, connecting it with the grid, and switching to the net-metering regime, I am now paying only around Rs. 700-Rs. 1,000 per month,” he added.

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Benefits of rooftop solar during Fani inspired many consumers

Grid-connected customers are conventionally not able to store solar energy in their households as their excess production goes to power distribution companies (discoms). During power cuts, no amount of solar energy is either stored at households or transmitted to the discoms. However, now, some on-grid customers are also adding storage units to help them during power cuts during disasters.

Under the net-metering regime, for the grid-connected customers, the household consumes the daily generated solar energy first and then it takes the remaining electricity from the conventional grid system. At times, when the production of electricity from the solar panels at rooftops is more than consumption, the extra energy produced from the household is exported to the discoms. The consumer, at the end of the month, has to pay the net electricity units it consumed from the discoms, after deducting the solar energy consumed by them and the extra solar energy the household exported to the discoms, which often leads to reduced power bills.

Solar power developing agencies in Odisha said that given the vulnerability of the state to cyclone and disaster-induce power cuts, they are now offering an additional facility of storage of solar energy, even for grid-connected customers, that can be used on demand.

“The demand for solar rooftops has increased in the last five years,” said Jayant Sahoo, Engineer at Solar Sack, a solar developer agency, certified by Odisha’s renewable energy department. “After Fani, many households realised the importance of solar rooftops during disasters like cyclones and the demands have escalated. Now we are offering an additional energy storage battery system for grid-connected solar customers so that they can prepare their household energy needs keeping in mind the disaster situation,” he told Mongabay-India.

Sahoo cited several examples of how solar energy consumers tackled their power woes during cyclone Fani, showing customer power bills and citing the differences they had in their bills after switching to clean energy. He, however, claimed that the demand for rooftop solar is mostly in urban areas while, in rural areas, owing to the frequent power outages and low paying capacity, the sector has failed to expand.

JK Rath checks the net meter at his residence in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. The solar power generated from his rooftop solar power system helped him through power cuts in the city during Cyclone Fani in 2019. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.
JK Rath checks the net meter at his residence in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. The solar power generated from his rooftop solar power system helped him through power cuts in the city during Cyclone Fani in 2019. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

Institutional consumers also reaping the benefits of solar rooftop

In addition to residential and individual customers in Odisha benefitting from reduced power bills, there are also institutional beneficiaries of solar rooftop projects who are saving several hundred thousand rupees every year.

For instance, the Shankar Eye Hospital at Hinjlicut is the first institutional solar rooftop beneficiary in Ganjam district of Odisha, a constituency represented by Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. It installed 150 kW solar panels on the campus in 2017 and now claims to be saving around Rs. 10 lakh (one million) every year after switching to solar energy.

“Last year, 71 percent of our energy requirements were taken care of by solar energy alone whereas in the previous few years more than 60 percent of the energy was from solar. After switching to solar energy, we are now able to save around Rs. 10 lakh (one million) per year in power bills,” S. Visvanathan, Secretary and Trustee of Shankar Eye Hospital, told Mongabay-India.

He said that his organisation invested around Rs. one crore (Rs. 10 million) in the installation of solar panels and, of that, Rs. 25 lakh (Rs. 2.5 million) was received as government subsidy. In the last three years, his organisation has been able to save Rs. 25 lakh in their power bills by switching to solar energy partially. He expects that in the next three years they would recover the investment costs and would even earn a profit from the clean energy transition.

Solar rooftop panel at Shankar Eye Hospital, Hinjilcut in Ganjam district of Odisha. Photo courtesy Shankar Eye Hospital.

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The state government claims that under the solar rooftop scheme of the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), subsidies were provided by the government to the interested individuals who wanted to install solar power. “The plan worked well in the state and more than 8 MW of total energy production in the state was done by rooftop panels alone in the first phase of the scheme. Now, the disbursement of subsidies and the overall rooftops works have been given to the discoms. The customers have the freedom to choose the solar developer agency of their choice from the list of agencies certified by the government,” Ashok Choudhury, Joint Director, Odisha Renewable Energy Development Agency (OREDA) told Mongabay-India.

The state government has also been trying to tap solar and other forms of renewable energy to shift towards a clean energy regime. As per the latest available data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Odisha has a total installed capacity of 590 MW of renewable energy against the total installed capacity of 7,768 MW of power utilities (thermal and renewable energy).

However, there are some challenges for the expansion of rooftop solar in the state. Several customers claim that the disbursement of subsidies in the scheme had been taking much time leading to reduced interested.

A higher installation cost of the solar panels is also one of the factors. Each kW of solar panel installation in the state is around Rs. 45,000. The non-utility of solar-powered grid-connected households during power outages also seemed to be a negative factor for the proliferation of the scheme. So far, the scheme seems confined to urban areas due to many factors such as costs.


Banner image: A solar rooftop prosumer showcasing his setup from his household in Bhubaneswar. Photo by Manish Kumar.

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