Until 2017, Thanagarha village in the Morigaon district of Assam had not seen electricity. Students here studied under the light from oil-based lanterns. Families would wrap up their daily chores by the early evening before it got dark. To add to their woes, the village faced the brunt of floods, owing to its proximity to the Brahmaputra river.

Thanagarha is a remote village because of which, it was difficult to take power transmission lines there. In 2017, the Assam Energy Development Agency decided to install an off-grid solar plant on one of the water bodies in the village. The new setup, which was alien to the local villagers, brought electricity – and with it, several changes to the people’s lifestyles as the students could now study after dark, street lights could be installed and people had the option of increasing their usage of electrical appliances.

“Earlier as soon as the sun used to set, the whole area used to go into complete darkness and only the oil lamps served us. This created several problems for the students and others. People got injured as the potholes were not clearly visible in the dark, and during floods, the problems doubled. The solar floating plant helped us to overcome all such electricity-related problems,” Sanjay Konwar, a resident of the village, told Mongabay-India.

After the floating solar panel, also called floatovoltaics, was installed in the village, around 30 households got electricity from the off-grid solar solution.

Similar experiments are ongoing in other remote villages of Assam, where floating solar panels are being installed on water bodies. The Assam government has also issued tenders to a Hyderabad-based developer to install 10 more such solar panels on water bodies, each having a capacity of 10 kilowatts.

In the last five years, there has been a surge in the expansion of floating solar panels in the country. Data suggests that India has around 15 mega floating solar projects under different stages of completion, with their combined capacity being 1,832 megawatts.

A floating solar unit in a remote location in Assam. Photo credit: Quant Solar

Though the business and technique of floating solar panels are new, compared to the land-based solar plants, several new and established players have now jumped onto the bandwagon of the emerging industry in the country.

Siddhant Agarwal and Pankaj Kumar are alumni of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The duo, after spending years in Singapore, returned to the country and launched their firm Quant Solar, to give technical assistance to several government and private agencies for such projects.

Siddhant Agarwal told Mongabay-India that compared to the land-based solar panels, floating solar panels have the advantage of being free from the hassles of land acquisition, tree felling for large solar projects and payment of compensation, besides having a better output from such plants. He said that several land-based solar projects are often delayed due to delay in land related issues. Agarwal also explained the benefits of proximity of these plants to dams.

“In several parts of the country, floating solar plants are coming up near dams,” Agarwal told Mongabay-India. “This is because, dams often have other support systems which can help in reducing costs. The presence of hydro power energy sources can tackle jerks, transmission lines and nearby human settlements which can reduce costs of transmission.”

He however also maintained that the floating solar technique is a new area which has gathered impetus only in the last 5 years-6 years but, has the potential to be a key factor to achieve the ambitious renewable energy goals of the Indian government. The Indian government has planned to install 500 GW of renewable energy by the end of 2030.

Pan-India growth

Several Indian government enterprises in the power, oil and natural gas, the manufacturing sector, and state governments are pushing for floating solar plants. The NTPC recently installed its largest floating solar panel of 100 megawatts at Ramagundam in Telangana. The Madhya Pradesh government has also planned to tap 1,000 megawatts of solar energy through the floating solar plants.

The NHPC, a government-owned entity, has also planned to produce 2,850 megawatts of solar energy through this mode and has eyed Jharkhand, Telangana and Odisha among others for its mega floating solar projects. The country’s solar energy development agency, Solar Energy Corporation of India, has also planned to achieve 10 gigawatts of solar energy through floatovoltaics.

The Energy and Research Institute’s 2020 study Floating Solar Photovoltaics claims that it is feasible to generate 280 gigawatts solar energy from a 100 sq km of water surface. The country has 5,264 dams while another 437 are under construction.

At the global level, 60 countries are said to be pushing the technology and Asia is in a dominant position with the sector expected to grow at 20% per year till 2025. A study by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water and Skill Council for Green Jobs along with the National Research Development Corporation on the issue of job prospects in the sector claimed that a small floating plant of less than 1 megawatts often employs 58 workers while a mid-scale plant (below 10 megawatts) can give jobs to 45 personnel besides the associated indirect jobs.

Experts however also demand uniform norms to give aid to the sector. Arun Kumar, a professor of Hydrology and Renewable Energy at IIT-Roorkee, said there is a need for uniform guidelines from the government for setting up such plants to rule out existing hurdles in the process.

In his recent presentation at the Ruby Jubilee Lecture on the issue, Kumar cited the threats of spillage and other accidental damages from such plants in a few cases, but claimed that such mishap chances exist in all transmission lines.

The Lower Manair Dam at Karimnagar in Telangana where floating solar plants have been planned. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/Mongabay

“The installation of such plants on water bodies often require coordination and permission from several stakeholders like the fisheries department, hydropower units, irrigation department and others,” he said. “There needs to be some uniform norms to ensure the hassle-free growth of the sector. Meanwhile, norms are also needed to specify the standards of parts and techniques used in such plants for a viable future of such projects.”

Challenges in floatovoltaics

Some experts meanwhile claimed that in disaster-prone areas and in flood-prone areas, such structures could be exposed to damages. KC Patra is a professor of Hydrology at the National Institute of Technology-Rourkela. He has worked on floods and river and floodplain issues for more than three decades.

“There are several states like Odisha which are prone to cyclones,” he told Mongabay-India. “There are also states which are prone to floods. Establishment of such plants in disaster-prone areas could be a challenge, as such adverse weather conditions can harm such structures on water bodies due to fluctuating water levels and high cyclonic wind speed.”

He however said that the sector has grown well in the last few years, with multiple technology advancements, and is likely to give an impetus to the growth of clean energy in the country, if the challenges of adverse weather conditions can be overcome. He urged that more concrete studies are needed to understand the impact of such plants on the water bodies on which they are installed.

Some of the developers of floating solar panels say that one of the challenges is a lack of engineers and skilled workers who can help in developing the solar panels on water bodies and their underwater structures and maintenance.

Studies have shown that such plants can lead to interference in the interaction of atmosphere and water bodies, leading to reduced oxygen supply to the water body. Some other studies meanwhile claimed that such floating solar plants can cause reduced evaporation. However technical experts like Kumar from IIT, Kharagpur, claimed that the standardly accepted value of the usage of water bodies by such plants is below 10% for a sustainable project, to ensure the minimum effect of such plants on the water bodies.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.