Special Economic Zones: An opportunity to double India’s onsite solar capacity

Posted on: August 28, 2019


In 2000, the Indian government introduced  industrial parks called Special Economic Zones (SEZs), with the objective of enhancing foreign investment, providing an internationally competitive export-processing environment, and boosting employment generating opportunities. As per mandate set by the Central Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI), at least 51 percent of SEZ land should be demarcated as ‘processing area’, or core industrial area where manufacturing units are located.

India has 213 operating SEZs today, and considering the mandate, could potentially generate up to 1,080 megawatts (MW) of on-site solar power. This inference is based on nearly two years of field assessments, which have indicated that: a) of the core industrial areas, only 50 percent may comprise the actual factory area (the rest comprising factory infrastructure like roads, sewage systems, etc.); b) of the actual factory area, only 60 percent are already built up and functioning, and; c) of this built up areas, only 35 percent is suitable for on-site solar power.

Ascertaining how much more of this potential can be commercially exploited will need further assessments, but prima facie, the two important influencers are suitability of the roofs and additional regulatory compliances notified in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Act for SEZs situated on the coast.

At this juncture, it is important to remember that as in May 2018 India has only 1,211 MW of rooftop solar power installed across all its sectors, a mere 3 percent of its target of 40,000 MW by 2022. With their solar potential, SEZs could help in doubling the installed rooftop solar capacity.


In general, rooftop solar installations by commercial and industrial consumers have not shown significant growth, despite their economic viability. The primary reason for this is the reluctance of utilities to let go of higher-paying commercial and industrial consumers, as revenue generated from them helps the utility subsidise low-income consumers. Therefore, utilities employ certain criteria to restrict the size of the rooftop solar projects under net-metering programs that require them to buy excess rooftop solar power. These restrictions may be a cap on the project size, or a limit that is equal to a percentage of the consumer’s connected load, or with respect to the local distribution transformer’s capacity.

Since SEZs host many businesses, a unique situation plays out with respect to on-site solar power. A few (typically large) companies in SEZs need more power than their rooftop solar plants can generate. On the other hand, many medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) in the SEZs can generate rooftop solar power that may exceed their requirements. These MSMEs are unable to fully exploit their rooftop solar potential because of their inability to invest, their relatively lower creditworthiness that poses a problem for private developers, or a cap on the project sizes under net-metering schemes.

Innovative models

If SEZs are to fully exploit their onsite solar potential, it has to be done without affecting the utilities’ revenue streams. Two possibilities to do this exist:

  1. Electricity Regulatory Commissions (ERCs) can remove the capacity restrictions on net-metering programs for SEZs; and approve third party roof leasing models. For example, Orissa removed 1 MW cap for stakeholders to save transmission and distribution losses and increase rooftop solar percolation in the state. Maharashtra has also removed 1 MW cap for textile units.
  2. ERCs can allow private developers to aggregate the rooftop solar power, and sell excess power to larger companies in the industrial park. Currently, such a solar project developer or industrial park developer has to apply to be a deemed distribution license for that area. Deemed distribution licensees must source 24×7 power, lay their own distribution infrastructure and serve all consumers at tariffs fixed by the relevant electricity regulatory commissions, under Section 43 of the Electricity Act 2003. These barriers prevent SEZ owners/private developers from exploring any aggregated rooftop solar projects.

Given the declining cost of solar power, ERCs could allow utilities to charge a facilitation cost on every unit of excess power sold in the above models, while keeping the landed cost affordable for consumers. The benefits of such mechanisms could be evaluated by piloting the initiative at one SEZ.

Overall potential of Industrial Agglomerations

Beyond SEZs, India is home to many industrial agglomerations that are set up under various Central and state schemes. Extending the analysis to the currently available data from MoCI, reveals a conservative potential of 13,307-15,247 MW across these agglomerations. This is equal to 33-38 percent of India’s rooftop solar target.

On-site solar potential of India's Industrial Agglomerations

State-wise, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Telangana account for 85 percent of the on-site solar potential across all industrial agglomerations. Six of these eight states are on the coast, where additional CRZ compliances are required. Among the agglomerations industrial areas, corridor nodes, parks, estates, regions and SEZs across states, offer a collective solar potential of 87.1 percent. Unlocking this potential would also help create thousands of jobs and boost the nation’s industrial economy.

Combining Solar & Farming Benefits Both

Posted on: August 9, 2019

By: Steve Hanley

Fraunhofer ISE in Germany was one of the first to experiment with combining solar and farming on the same land. Its early research found doing so increases the productivity of the land significantly upto 60% or more in some cases.

Now researchers at the University of Arizona have confirmed the benefits of growing crops beneath the shade provided by solar panels — more electricity, higher yields, and less water used. That last part is of vital interest to farmers in Arizona where access to water for irrigation is crucial.

“Many of us want more renewable energy, but where do you put all of those panels? As solar installations grow, they tend to be out on the edges of cities, and this is historically where we have already been growing our food,” says Greg Barron-Gafford, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development and lead author of a report published in Nature Sustainability.

“So which land use do you prefer — food or energy production? This challenge strikes right at the intersection of human-environment connections, and that is where geographers shine!” he says. “We started to ask, ‘Why not produce both in the same place?’”

The researchers set up three parcels of land for the experiment. One was used exclusively for growing crops, another for solar panels, and a third parcel that combined the two. Three crops were chosen — chiltepin peppers, jalapeno peppers, and cherry tomatoes.

According to Science Daily, the researchers continuously monitored incoming light levels, air temperature, and relative humidity. Both the traditional planting area and the agrivoltaic system received equal irrigation rates and were tested using two irrigation scenarios — daily irrigation and irrigation every second day.

A Win For Crops

“We found that many of our food crops do better in the shade of solar panels because they are spared from the direct sun,” says Baron-Gafford. “In fact, total chiltepin fruit production was three times greater under the PV panels in an agrivoltaic system, and tomato production was twice as great!” Jalapenos produced a similar amount of fruit in both the agrivoltaics system and the traditional plot, but did so with 65% less transpirational water loss.

“At the same time, we found that each irrigation event can support crop growth for days, not just hours, as in current agriculture practices. This finding suggests we could reduce our water use but still maintain levels of food production,” he added, noting that soil moisture remained approximately 15% higher in the agrivoltaics system than the control plot when irrigating every other day.

A Win For Solar

As solar panels heat up, their efficiency decreases. By cultivating crops underneath the PV panels, researchers were able to reduce the temperature of the panels.

“Those overheating solar panels are actually cooled down by the fact that the crops underneath are emitting water through their natural process of transpiration — just like misters on the patio of your favorite restaurant,” Barron-Gafford says. “All told, that is a win-win-win in terms of bettering our how we grow our food, utilize our precious water resources, and produce renewable energy.”

Based on the temperature-efficiency curves of these solar panels, the researchers calculate those cooler temperatures should increase electricity generation by about 3% over the summer months, averaging out to a 1% gain for the whole year, according to ArsTechnica.

Other Benefits

Barron-Gafford’s research has expanded to include several solar installations on Tucson Unified School District land. Moses Thompson, who splits his time between those public schools and the university, notes that engaging the public school students has its own benefits. “What draws me to this work is what happens to the K-12 learner when their involvement is consequential and the research lives in their community,” he says. “That shift in dynamics creates students who feel agency in addressing grand challenges such as climate change.”

The research also suggests cooler temperatures under solar panels could protect farm workers from too much exposure to the sun. “Climate change is already disrupting food production and farm worker health in Arizona,” said Gary Nabhan, an agroecologist at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center and a co-author on the study. “The Southwestern U.S. sees a lot of heat stroke and heat-related death among our farm laborers. This could have a direct impact there, too.”

The Takeaway

Does this research mean all agriculture should be carried out beneath solar panels? Of course not. The researchers are working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to study how to expand agrivoltaics to other crops and other areas. It will be no panacea but it could have one very important benefit for farmers.

The income earned from leasing their land to solar energy companies could make the difference between continuing in the farming tradition or selling out. Farming communities are already under stress from climate change related factors — flooding, rising temperatures, and drought among them. A synergy between agriculture and solar generation could be the lifeline they need to preserve their livelihood.