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Indian tech could boost home solar panel use - here's how

A worker cleans photovoltaic solar panels inside a solar power plant at Raisan village near Gandhinagar, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, February 11, 2014

A worker cleans photovoltaic solar panels inside a solar power plant at Raisan village near Gandhinagar, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, February 11, 2014. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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As India strives to swap fossil fuels for green energy, companies turn to tech to help customers service rooftop solar systems

  • India lags in meeting a 40-gigawatt rooftop solar goal
  • Poor after-sales service results in defunct systems
  • Apps are now connecting technicians with customers

CHENNAI, India - Just six months ago, New Delhi-based Avdesh Kumar was a painter struggling to find enough work. Now, the newly-trained solar technician's phone pings with several job requests each day.

Having recently joined renewable power company SunEdison, Kumar is a key link between India's growing number of rooftop solar providers and citizens switching to green energy at home.

"Until a few months back ... I didn't know this was even a job and that there was demand for it," the 34-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his home in India's capital.

"But now I have four or five client visits a day," Kumar said, explaining how using SunEdison's app has helped him meet growing demand for maintenance work from rooftop solar panel owners to keep their standalone systems functioning efficiently.

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It is one of a few such digital platforms - including AHA Solar Rooftop Helper, SunPro+ and the Surya Mitra app - that have sprung up to match solar maintenance experts in search of work with customers who need cleaning and repair services.

Providing such services more efficiently is considered essential to help promote and meet the targets of India's renewable energy push, which is aiming to move the South Asian country away from its reliance on fossil fuels including coal.

This month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed a major clean energy project to make Modhera in western Gujarat state the nation's first 24/7 solar-powered village, with citizens producing their own electricity from 1,300 rooftop systems.

The key to the project's success - and ensuring sustained power generation - will depend on good maintenance of the systems, researchers say, pointing to numerous examples of poor after-sales service resulting in defunct rooftop solar projects.

"In villages, if a battery becomes defunct, the solar lamps connected to it switch off and remain that way," said Aviram Sharma, assistant professor at Bihar's Nalanda University, who has carried out research on solar micro-grids in rural areas.

Remote villages lack shops where people can get a solar system repaired, unlike with mobile phones, he said.

"As a result, it stops working forever," Sharma added.

India has fallen behind on its goal to install 40 gigawatts (GW) of rooftop solar power capacity by the end of 2022.

An April report by consultancy firm JMK Research and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a non-profit, projected a 25GW deficit in capacity this year.

The high cost of installing solar systems - which can range from 40,000 to 80,000 Indian rupees ($482-964) for a 1-kilowatt system - has deterred many would-be consumers, providers say.

For the steadily growing numbers of rooftop solar owners across India, meanwhile, keeping them working is the main worry.

"Our market survey has shown that early adopters of rooftop solar have had very bad experiences," said Vivek Kumar, who heads operations and maintenance at SunEdison.

"No one is selling the experience of going solar to a consumer. It is sold as a one-time investment which ends with installation. Maintenance is not discussed," he added.

Villager Mohan Bharwad poses next to a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) powered by solar energy, outside his house on the outskirts of Gandhinagar, India, June 25, 2015

Villager Mohan Bharwad poses next to a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) powered by solar energy, outside his house on the outskirts of Gandhinagar, India, June 25, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Villager Mohan Bharwad poses next to a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) powered by solar energy, outside his house on the outskirts of Gandhinagar, India, June 25, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave

'Fly by night'

A vital pillar of India's renewable energy push is to create a workforce that can operate the solar and wind plants being set up across the country to meet rising demand for electricity.

However, six years since the inception of a national skills programme, less than a third of the nearly 80,000 participants trained to install solar panels, connect them to grids and maintain batteries have found jobs, government data shows.

Meanwhile, residents find it hard to get their solar energy systems fixed when they have a problem, consumer groups say.

"There are still a number of fly-by-night operators who install a rooftop system and then disappear," said K. Vishnu Mohan Rao, senior researcher with the non-profit Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group.

The problem is exacerbated by a fragmented supply chain - with various parts being made by different companies, he added.

In Gujarat, which accounts for more than 80% of India's rooftop solar installations, physical stores are not visible in any of the state's cities, said Pulkit Dhingra, founder and director of AHA! Solar, a firm providing solar tech solutions.

"In many cases, companies are mandated to maintain the system for five years, but they don't see value in it," he said.

"In the hyper-competitive market, with small profit margins, the focus is just (on) installation," added Dhingra, whose company also helps Gujarat implement the state's solar policy.

In rural India, where solar energy is used for powering water pumps, lighting health centres, homes and schools, the lack of a directory of solar technicians makes the situation worse, according to researchers.

"It involves days of trying to contact vendors (and) video calls on patchy networks to try and explain the problem to a technician located in a city," said Dheeraj Kumar Gupta, a senior energy programme associate with the World Resources Institute India, a research organisation.

Even if an annual maintenance contract is signed when a solar rooftop system is installed, it is often not fulfilled as villages are too far away for technicians to visit, with local electricians instead hired when a quick fix is needed, he added.

A labourer, who works in a salt pan, covers her face beside a solar panel outside a shelter in Little Rann of Kutch in the western Indian state of Gujarat March 2, 2014

A labourer, who works in a salt pan, covers her face beside a solar panel outside a shelter in Little Rann of Kutch in the western Indian state of Gujarat March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

A labourer, who works in a salt pan, covers her face beside a solar panel outside a shelter in Little Rann of Kutch in the western Indian state of Gujarat March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Way forward

India's federal government and states are trying to wean themselves off fossil fuels to meet climate targets as public awareness of global warming grows and electricity gets pricier.

In Gujarat, Rajendra Mistry, chief project officer of the state's power corporation, is charged with documenting lessons from the 24/7 solar-powered project in Modhera.

"The learnings from this project will shape the planning for many more in the pipeline," Mistry said in an interview.

The two main challenges in the rooftop solar sector are finance and maintenance, he said. In the case of Modhera, the government covered all the costs while a company has been contracted to keep the systems in good working order.

Kumar of SunEdison, meanwhile, is monitoring the growth of his company's app, which matches solar technicians with customers in 83 Indian cities.

"The industry is ready to explode and it makes sense to have a handy workforce ready to grow alongside," he said.

Although consumer forums have flagged privacy concerns around the increasing use of such apps and obstacles to adoption such as poor mobile internet connections in rural areas, they have provided consistent work for people such as Avdesh Kumar.

He uploads pictures of himself in safety gear, as well as the work he has completed, to show SunEdison he is doing a good job and following the protocols correctly.

"I am also part of a growing group of technicians and we share our knowledge," he said. "It makes me learn and grow."

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj; Editing by Megan Rowling and Kieran Guilbert.)


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