Schools and Colleges are Going Solar and Leading India’s Energy Transformation

Solar – not black coal – is beginning to power classrooms, dormitories and canteens of multitudes of educational institutions across the country. Solar power is heating water, helping run laboratories, shining auditoriums, cooling down canteens, assisting in administrative work and illuminating street lights on school grounds. Due to surging electricity bills and the desire to protect the environment, more and more educational institutions are turning to solar to meet their daily energy needs.

“Educational institutions in India are a huge market for solar. Most of the schools and colleges are already very knowledgeable about the benefits of going solar. It is a matter of figuring out the logistics and financing to make installations happen,” said Raj Prabhu, CEO of Mercom Capital Group.

“Living in a sustainable manner and integrating environmental education into the learning process helps our students understand how their decisions and actions affect the environment and enables them to make informed decisions as managers of the future. Even our buildings are constructed from eco-friendly and locally-sourced material. To add to that, we went solar last year and most of our energy needs are being fulfilled by these panels,” said M S Narasimhan, dean, administration, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore.

The Business School pursued solar power in order to reduce grid electricity consumption during peak demand. “The solar panels on the campus are generating 39,500 units per day, on an average. The project was installed with an investment of ₹2.12 billion (~ $28.92 million). We are saving about ₹360,000 (~ $5000) per month. Moreover, the cost savings increase with the increase in grid tariff,” said Kavita Kumar, spokesperson, IIMB.

While most institutions are yet to become completely sustainable, they are taking notable steps towards it. “We have solar panels on ten buildings on our campus. The total capacity is 125 kW per month. This meets around 35 percent of our total energy demand. Currently, we are not grid connected as we are barely self-sustainable. But getting under net metering is in the cards and we also plan to expand our [solar] capacity soon,” said V N Suryanarayana, state officer and university engineer, National law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. The law school is using solar panels to fuel its street lights, and light up hostels and guest houses.

The National Institute of Advance Studies (NIAS), commissioned an on-grid solar project in early 2014 and spent ₹800,000 (~ $10,000) to setup a 100 kW installation. While solar is meeting 75 percent of the Institute’s total energy demand, it is not generating any meaningful revenue by selling excess solar power yet.

“We whip up around 350-400 units on days when the sun is shining bright. Solar energy is meeting almost 75 percent of our total energy demand. While the project has been grid connected since its inception, we only send back around 16-17 thousand units to the grid annually. That is very small revenue compared to the investment,” says Srinivasa Athila, head of administration, NIAS. The institute has panels installed on two buildings and has plans to install panels on a third building soon.

For others, it is the high demand-supply ratio that has prevented a chance to generate revenue. “The total panel capacity of our campus is 100 kW which was set up around six years ago but has been operational only for last three years. The idea was given by Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL) during a national seminar on renewable energy. Although we are grid connected, we have not been able to generate much by routing the surplus to the grid. This is due to the increasing demand-supply ratio. Currently, the energy from solar panels takes care of 67 to 68 percent of our total demand. Most of our laboratories are run on solar power during a sunny day,” said Uma V, dean, department of post- graduation studies, Mount Carmel College. Mount Carmel College has three buildings covered with solar panels.

It is not just the higher education campuses, even city schools are going solar. One example is Delhi Public School (DPS). Out of its four campuses, DPS has gone completely solar at one campus. “All our energy needs at DPS, east campus are being taken care of by the solar panels. The total capacity of these panels is 100 kW, while we need only around 70 kW daily, on an average. We will soon be sending the surplus to the grid and will begin earning for going green,’ said Mansoor Ali Khan, member, board of directors, DPS South Zone, informing that two more DPS campuses will soon start operating on solar energy.

“We resorted to solar due to electricity supply issues. We were facing many power cuts and thus had to fall back on generators. Moreover, if we want our children to feel for the environment and act responsibly, we must set an example,” says Mansoor.

While some schools like DPS have eliminated their electricity bills by installing solar, there are many yet to go solar, despite the willingness. They blame it on high upfront costs and a lack of viable financing options.

“It is mostly the top schools that have the ability to purchase solar panels and generate energy. The cost of setting up of panels is too much for other private schools. For solar to work with schools and educational institutions, the subsidy on small projects should be made more attractive. Most of the private schools in Karnataka are budget schools. Neither do we have high energy requirements, nor the money to bare the initial cost. For a school of medium size, a project of 2 to 5 kW will be enough,” said D Shahi Kumar, general secretary, Associated Management of English Medium Schools in Karnataka.

Currently, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has Central Financial Assistance (CFA) of 15% in place for solar rooftop projects built under institutional category. The CFA is provided through state nodal agencies, Solar Energy Corporation of India, IREDA, empanelled government agencies, public sector undertakings of the Central and state governments and participating banks.

Agreeing, K P Gopalakrishna, founder chairman, National public School (NPS) told Mercom, “We have solar panels, but the capacity is very low (5 kW). While it is supplementing the cost of our electricity bill, the power generated is hardly significant compared with our total power need. The government should come up with more rewarding subsidies for small projects,” said Gopalakrishna.

There are many others who have also installed solar recently. The latest to join the ‘sun club’ is Allahabad University. With 23 building covered in panels, the campus started generating solar power only a week ago. “The total capacity of the panels installed is 1.434MW and it is expected to generate 6000 units per day on an average,” said NK Singh, university engineer, Allahabad University. The panels are connected to net metering system. “We plan to send the surplus to the grid. While the consumption will be high on weekdays, we are expecting to have excess energy over the weekends,” said Singh.

In July 2018, Amity University installed rooftop solar PV projects aggregating 1.8 MW across three campuses.

In May 2018, IIT Kharagpur had invited an expression of interest to develop 5.5 MW of solar projects.

Recently, Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Uttarakhand’s Pantnagar town tendered a 5 MW grid-connected rooftop solar PV project.

Solar initiatives undertaken by the educational institutions are setting a good example for the rest of the country. Not only will this make the country adopt a sustainable and economical source of power, it will also help the overall growth trajectory of the rooftop solar sector. Mercom recently reported that India crossed the milestone of 25 GW of installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in August 2018. Out of the installed capacity, rooftop solar accounts for merely 2.5 GW.

“Learning about renewable energy early and being exposed to solar panels on top of schools and colleges will have an incredibly positive effect on students who are future consumers. Having grown up with solar and versed in its benefits, they are more likely to choose solar as their energy source when the time comes. Also, their ability to influence their parents to go solar to protect the environment should not be underestimated,” said Prabhu.

Garima is a staff reporter with MercomIndia.com covering renewable energy news. Prior to Mercom, Garima worked as a journalist with The Times of India and The New Indian Express. She received her Master’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Nottingham and PG Diploma degree in journalism from the Times School of Journalism.