Solar unlimited in India: 1,000 GW on 0.5% of the land

We have often argued that solar can be India’s future: not just an incremental power source at the fringes of the economy, but a real game changer. We wanted to visualize what the potential really is. Our India Solar Potential map below, is the result.

  • 1,000 GW of solar could be built on half the area of the district of Barmer in Rajasthan
  • 1,000 GW could generate 1,500 TWh/ year which is around 1.5 times India’s demand
  • The map given below shows how India can think big with solar

1,000 GW of solar PV (multi-crystalline modules) would require 16,000 km2. That is a large amount of land, but not nearly too large for India to contemplate. It would cover half the desert district of Barmer in Rajasthan or 3.5% of India’s wasteland (or, about the size of the pacific island of Fiji or 10% of the land holdings of the Catholic Church).

1,000 GW of solar could generate 1,500 TWh per year, around 1.5 times India’s 2013 demand. We assume a capacity utilization factor (CUF) of 17%. At the moment, India uses 220 GW of installed capacity (the majority of which are coal-fired power plants) to generate around 1,000 TWh of power per year. The average CUF of the current plant mix is higher than that of solar. Thus, we would need more installed solar capacity to generate the same amount of power.

If we turn the story around and look at the solar energy that hits India as a whole, the picture becomes clearer still: the country receives an average of 5.39 kWh of solar energy per square meter per day. This is around 6.5 million TWh per year for the entire land-mass of India, more than 6,000 times the 2013 power demand.

The map is designed to show that India can think big with solar. It would in reality not be advisable to place only one enormous power plant into a single district. More likely, there would be many different sized plants across the country: from the Western deserts to the Deccan plateau and the power starved plains of Tamil Nadu, in thousands of villages and on millions of rooftops. There will be challenges in making this work. The main challenge is that solar power cannot be generated all the time and in an entirely predictable manner. So, if solar were to provide 100% of India’s power requirements, there would have to be storage, which is currently still very expensive. In the absence of storage, large amounts of solar would have to be complemented by spinning reserves and balancing power plants. We are currently working on quantifying the technical challenges and commercial implications of this in more detail. The potential, however, remains huge. And the implementation is possible.

india's startegic energy options (IV)- pic 3

Download the map by clicking here.


  • This analysis is right, except for the bureaucratic wrangling that will start for such a giant power facility. Just imagine the gov’t decides to set up a multi GW solar farm for India 2050. I am not aware how many GW it will require but say half of Rajasthan can supply more solar electricity than what is required.
    First hurdle… such a plan has to be placed in the parliament which will easily take more than three or four years to pass the plan.

    Next it will require world bank loan that will take some extra years. Than the gov’t needs to appoint an undersecretary in charge of solar energy that will take a lot of time. People who will be displaced by this solar monstrosity will approach the supreme court for adequate compensation and right type of land where they can live life that they had in old Rajasthan. Meanwhile there will be an election and another gov’t will come to power promising the people, they will not make anyone move from where they are.. This new gov’t will not like the under sec’y that was chosen by the earlier administration.

    Still I have not mentioned the technical difficulty of storage of so much energy. It would be incomprehensible to store this energy in many batteries built for automobiles. These are only simple problems I have mentioned. In real life problems are even more complex. All above things also will cost some money and it will have to be paid for by charging higher electrical bills to people.

    Instead suppose the Gov’t decides to provide loans to any home owner who will set up rooftop solar PV installation. The loan will be at a low interest rate to be paid back in 15 or 20 years. In USA just now the city of Philadelphia has announced that it plans to install so many thousand rooftop installations and generate 100,000 KWH per day. If the financial arrangement is good this target can be easily met. There will not be any one being displaced, nor will it take a giant bureaucracy to manage it. Also it will create so many solar contractors who will generate employment for thousands of people. Still no one will notice any disturbance in his daily life.

    Indian government believes in planning only major projects because it increases the power of the ministry and that of the bureaucracy. It is time we think of involving average people who have to pay the final bill anyway. Let the people drive NSM and gov’t should only give loans and get the money back which people will gladly pay back if people get paid for Feed-in Teriff. This is the lowest cost and easily executable plan.

    BTW I am not saying all GW plans are bad but to make it as National Solar Mission is not wise.

  • Small is beautiful, solar is good when it is distributed. Treating it like a centralized solution like a mega thermal power plant is not the most ideal solution. This will create an unequal platform and the business bount will be shared by the well connected and well off companies and individuals. Community owned plants and democraticing solar power should also be in the mix.

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