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Slow solar rooftop installations in India and Pakistan’s capital cities raise concerns about South Asia’s green future

High cost of living in Islamabad and Delhi. Summer heat from climate change increases energy costs. Need to promote solar rooftops for cost savings and environmental benefits.

By Pallav Jain and Faheem Akhtar
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Solar rooftop

Rooftop Solar Installed in Islamabad, Picture Credit Faheem Akhtar

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Tahla Azhar, a resident of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, is happy to see his electricity bill in the negative after installing solar on his rooftop about eight months ago. 

In the neighbouring country of India, Amit Bajaj invested in a solar rooftop about 14 months ago. His monthly electricity bill has dropped by two-thirds.

Despite the obvious money-saving and environmental benefits, solar rooftop installation in both cities – the capitals of India and Pakistan – has been surprisingly slow.  

Solar panels on a roofDescription automatically generated
Data Source: The Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO) and Delhi Solar Policy 2024

Both cities grapple with heat waves and rising energy demands.  The required capacity is yet to be built. In both countries, the major renewable energy source is the sun. But, solar energy has a land problem. 

To build a solar farm with a 1 MW installed capacity, 4-5 acres of land is required. In capital cities with high population density, this isn’t a viable solution. Hence, the governments are pushing for solar rooftops. That requires consumers to install and pay for solar panels on their rooftops.

Solar Rooftop in Delhi
Amit Bajaj standing beneath his 6 KW solar rooftop system

Countries’ global commitments

Pakistan and India are among the nearly 200 countries that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The agreement aims to reduce overall greenhouse emissions and help limit the global increase in temperature to between 1.5-2.0 degrees Celsius. The government of Pakistan has set a target of producing 60 % of energy from renewable energy sources by the year 2030. 

On the other hand, according to the Press Information Bureau, India has set a target to ‘achieve about 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil, fuel-based energy resources by 2030.’ According to India's Renewable Energy Minister RK Singh, by the end of October, the share of non-fossil fuel sources in India's electricity generation capacity has reached about 44%. However, still, 50.06 per cent of the energy demand in India is still being met by coal power plants

To achieve each country’s global commitments, political will and citizen participation is of utmost importance.

Rooftop solar installation on a warehouse in Delhi, India

Hurdles: Economics or Environment

Islamabad, with a population of about 3.5 million, has the highest per capita income in the country at US $8,527. The population of Delhi is around 35 million and the per capita income is around US$5,559, which is three times more than the national average. In such a situation, people are more financially capable of installing solar rooftops in these two cities. 

Citizens are facing different challenges in installing solar rooftops in both of these cities.

Islamabad, Pakistan  

Tahla Azhar from Islamabad says, 

“When we installed solar systems in our home, there was no subsidy or an incentive policy… We bought the rooftop from a private company, so they managed all the formalities. If you install solar on your own you will face issues with the green meter, which takes at least six months to complete.”

The rate of one solar plate in the market is around 40,000-50,000 PKR for 550 watts. The inverter costs 1- 2.5 lac PKR, while the battery costs are high with the country’s currency devaluation. However, being in a competitive sector, the cost of rooftop or solar installation will come down significantly. 

Mohammed Awais, a resident of Gujranwala, Pakistan, who works on installation and other technical issues of solar systems in the major cities of Pakistan, says rates of solar panels fluctuate, depending on policies and demand. Furthermore, the deteriorating economic health of Pakistan contributes to the rate, because of China’s dominance in the supply chain.

People in Islamabad have to face challenges like the high upfront cost of installing a solar system, space requirements, lack of awareness and technical expertise, bureaucracy, and regulations. 

Due to this, there is little increase in the number of people getting solar rooftop installed. The cost per unit of electricity, and frequent outages already bother the consumers in the country. The government needs to ensure that consumers are incentivized to install solar PVs through subsidies, rebates, and more.

Confusion on Net Metering Policy in Pakistan

There is also confusion in Pakistan regarding the solar rooftop policy at present. Some media reports claimed that the government may abolish the existing net metering system and implement the gross metering policy.

In net metering, the consumer can reduce his monthly bill by selling the excess electricity generated by his solar panel to the power distribution company. And the investment made in solar can be recovered in 2-3 years. Whereas in gross metering, he has to feed the electricity generated from solar into the grid and buy all the required electricity from the distribution company at retail tariff, due to which the consumer suffers financial loss.

In gross metering, the solar consumer has to buy the required electricity from the main grid at a retail tariff and feed all electricity generated from the solar into the grid at a feed-in tariff. Whereas in net metering, they only have to feed excess electricity into the main grid, so they do not have to buy electricity at retail tariff. Usually, the retail tariff is higher than the feed-in tariff.

In net metering, the consumer easily recovers the investment made in installing solar panels in 2-3 years. If the Pakistan government abolishes the net metering policy, then installing rooftop solar will become less attractive in Pakistan and this decision will weaken Pakistan's efforts to promote renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions.

However, Federal Minister of Energy Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari has clarified in Parliament that

“there is no such policy that has been introduced that is going to change any condition of any net metering owner or distribution companies that has happened so far, whenever we will do that, we will do it in a transparent manner.” 

He also added that “upper-class people are investing more in rooftop solar in the country, but it is important to study the impact this will have on the electricity tariff of protected and poor consumers.”

Tahla explains that in the net metering system, the government currently buys electricity from solar rooftop consumers at the rate of Rs 22 per unit, while the government itself provides electricity to the consumer at the rate of Rs 50 per unit. If the consumer installs a solar rooftop with a capacity greater than their requirement, then they can reduce or make their electricity bill zero by selling the excess electricity to the government. But if the government makes any change in net metering, then the consumer will have the option of detaching from the government grid and storing the excess electricity in the battery, which they can use even at night. But batteries are expensive, so the cost will increase further.

Pakistan needs to strengthen the existing power system to reduce electricity rates, making the grid stable by preventing transmission loss and electricity theft should be the priority of the government.

However, the Pakistan government is building new thermal power plants with China’s investment through the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Thermal plants convert heat into electricity and can be powered by everything from coal to nuclear energy.

Delhi, India  

In India, Delhi's state government announced a New Solar Policy 2024 in January. As per the policy document, consumers installing solar rooftops will be provided a subsidy of Rs 10,000 on the installation cost. This will be in addition to the 40 per cent subsidy already given by the central government for up to 3 kilowatts and a 20 per cent subsidy for 4-10 kilowatts. Along with this, the production-based incentive of up to 3/kWh will be provided to consumers of all sectors in Delhi, be it residential, commercial or industrial. 

The new solar policy says it will be mandatory for all government buildings with an area of 500 square meters or more to install solar panels in the next three years. The policy also promotes community-based solar systems, i.e. installation of solar panels on multi-story buildings. 

Residential buildings pushing solar panels on a community level

Residential buildings pushing solar panels on a community level

In its policy in 2016, Delhi's state government had set a target of achieving 1000 MW of electricity from solar rooftops by the year 2020. However, rooftops have reached only 230 MW in 2023. 

Omprakash Raikwar, a retired teacher, is a resident on the second floor of a five-story building in Delhi's Badarpur. He lives in the flat with his wife, while his children visit them regularly. His monthly expenses are managed through a government pension. 

He says, “With the community solar scheme, people like us who live in multi-story buildings can come together to install rooftop solar and save money. But not all the families in the building are ready for this.”  

As part of the state government’s welfare scheme, 200 units of electricity in Delhi are free of the electricity bill. Therefore, 2 out of 5 families living in this building say their monthly expenditure is already low. Hence after installing community solar, their investment will take a longer period to recover.

Even after 200 units, the price of electricity is higher in other areas adjacent to Delhi. For example, in Faridabad, Haryana, after using 250 units of electricity, one has to pay INR 6.5 per unit, while in Delhi the price is only INR 4.5 per unit. In situations like these, people intend to favour economics, rather than the environment. 

As John Maynard Keynes, the late economist once said:  “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Nishi Chandra, marketing head of Loom Solar, says:

 “Due to the presence of private Discoms in Delhi, net metering takes more time compared to other cities like Faridabad and Noida. On top of that, electricity is already cheaper in Delhi due to government subsidies, so the demand for domestic rooftop solar installation is also less.”

Binit Das, deputy program manager (Renewable Energy) at the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) states a few other possible hurdles. He told Mongabay India, that the higher upfront cost for domestic consumers, delayed disbursement of rooftop solar subsidies, and the loss of revenue of Discoms with the rise of solar consumers in the city are the main hurdles.

Amit Bajaj's reason for installing solar rooftops is commendable. He says:

“Considering high pollution levels and energy surge in the capital, this investment is more relevant. As our government tends to divert most of its sources to the capital of the country, it's important if we can produce electricity using these Solar Power plants. It will lead to energy & cost savings. Also when you invest in solar, you tend to keep an eye on any wastage parallelism, because you always want to make the best of what you have invested and believed in.”

Way Forward

The cost of living is high in Islamabad and Delhi. The rising temperature in summer due to climate change is increasing people's energy expenditure. There is a need to make people aware of the cost savings of solar rooftops as well as their environmental benefits. Not just this, but also constructing more energy-efficient buildings and appliances. 

On the topic of solar rooftops and generating electricity locally, Professor Chetan Solanki, founder of Energy Swaraj, known as the Solar Man in India, said:

“Who said that renewable energy has to be in the form of big power plants like an elephant? The beauty of solar and wind energy is that it is like a deer, it can be produced locally in a village, at home, in a field, anywhere. If every person starts generating his own electricity then we will not need big infrastructure… This will also save the country's money.”

Experts suggest that both countries employ several methods to increase the transition to solar and wind power. They include better awareness campaigns; making rates of electricity produced through solar competitive with coal-based energy; lucrative incentives; and subsidies for people to transition to renewable energy options. At the same time, people have to participate and become part of the fight against climate change, they said. 

Somehow, environmental benefits aren’t enough for people to transition to renewable energy. 

One idea is to turn the transition into a business opportunity. For example, SundayGrids, a digital solar platform, allows users to buy solar energy for solar credits without installing solar panels in some major cities in India. 

Many other startups exist in India to push for solar energy in different forms and make citizens aware of the economic advantages of having solar energy. But, a change in citizens’ relationship with electricity usage is very essential for this transition.

Shrikant Deshmukh, a government official related to the Power Department, says that the government is running an energy literacy campaign for the people. He adds people are advised to download an app to learn how to save electricity and also get a certificate. Along with this, energy audits have also been started for offices.

Shrikant adds “energy conservation is important along with the increase in energy production capacity.”

Experts say citizen participation must be encouraged through policy interventions. Along with this, the policies have to target consumers’ energy utility behaviour. Solar rooftops are part of the solution, and citizen participation in the fight against climate change is the solution.

Note: This story was part of a cross-border reporting workshop organized by the U.S.-based East-West Center. 

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