From an elevation, Bhadla is a sea of blue glass in the middle of an arid desertscape. As far as the eye can see, it is just the glistening blue against the near-cloudless sky, also quite blue. The blue grids on the ground are endless rows of silicon solar panels. Bhadla is India’s biggest solar power generating park. At 6,000 hectares it is second, perhaps, only to the Gulmand solar park in China.
The sun does not just shine on Bhadla. It scorches and withers everything it touches. This place, 220km from Jodhpur, bakes at 50 degrees Celsius through summers that seem to last forever. Very little grows on the land, just enough to feed some goats and sheep. About 10 years ago, the Bhadla panchayat almost did not exist on the map. Roads, water and other necessities were a far cry. For local people, the area was of little consequence.
Now, Bhadla is where the sun’s strength is harnessed to generate 2,245MW of energy every day. This solar park is one of India’s new success stories and a decisive step in diverting 40% of the country’s energy consumption towards renewable sources. The Narendra Modi government has set a 500-Gigawatt production target and without Bhadla, that won’t be possible.
In 2013, when Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot inaugurated the park, it seemed like he had taken a leap of faith. The first phase — out of the four — that came about under the UPA government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission set a modest target of 70 MW. When the Modi government was elected to office in 2014, it revised the renewable energy generation target to 1-lakh-MW by 2022.
The Centre has missed out the target, but the total solar energy share has risen to 55,000MW out of the total power consumption of 3.95-lakh-MW in the country. Bhadla is hot but also “the hot favourite for solar energy. The park now earns carbon credits of 5 million tonnes annually,” Subodh Agarwal, managing director, Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation, said.
Beginning here was not easy, like many beginnings. “The area had no roads, water or electricity. The rough terrain did not make it easy either. It was a gradual, resolute approach that led to the opening of the first phase, the smallest of the four phases in the park,” Agarwal said.
When the projects were auctioned for the first phase, the tariffs they attracted were high at Rs 6.45 a unit, even though it had come down substantially from over Rs 17 when the first projects were installed prior to JNNSM in 2010. “The high radiation and the highest number of sunny days in Bhadla encouraged power developers to offer lower rates to buyers (distribution companies or discoms). That’s why it became the first park in the country to allow the lowest tariff of Rs 2.44 a unit, setting a new benchmark in the country,” Agarwal said.
Power tariff is decided through e-auctions. The Solar Energy Corporation of India conducts e-auctions for states or for itself. In these e-auctions, companies bid to provide power to the discoms of NTPC or other entities. Before the JNNSM was formed, the government used to fix tariffs for solar power and power companies would sell it at that rate to the discoms. After e-auctions started, for the first phase in Bhadla, companies bid to provide power at Rs 6.45 a unit. Later, they offered as low as Rs 2.44 a unit. Recently, the tariff went below Rs 2 a unit for a project in Gujarat but has risen marginally over Rs 2 since then.
As Bhadla started attracting developers, the Power Grid Corporation too connected the park to the green corridor which connects to the national grid from where any state can draw energy from Bhadla. For example, Uttar Pradesh sources 750MW from the park through the network, while the rest of the capacity is used by Rajasthan’s power distributors. The park became the preferred mode of developing solar energy as it saved developers from the hassles of land acquisition, power evacuation bottlenecks and transmission handicaps.
“The comfort that a park offers to a developer is not there for a standalone project. You have all the infrastructure and most importantly, there is no hurdle for land acquisition,” said a senior official of IL&FS, which partnered with the Rajasthan government to develop the third phase of the park with 1,000 MW capacity.
The concentration of solar projects has attracted several other companies to set up plants outside the park. A senior official of the RRECL said that besides the 2,245MW in the park that has attracted investments of Rs 10,000 crore, projects with an additional capacity of 1,500MW have come up outside the park.
The development has fuelled a demand for land, contractors, vendors, material suppliers and several other ecosystem players. “Bhadla is no longer a village. If you visit the place at night, the lights give you the impression that it is a city without noise and pollution. More than that, the park has changed the face of the area,” Sunil Bansal, president of Rajasthan Solar Association, said.
Demand for land has shot up, raising prices by 10 times. The project development and construction spree have created a demand for cement, steel, sand and equipment for many other civil works. Transportation, hotel accommodation and other services have also witnessed a spike. “The sleepy village is now a buzzing industrial hub. It has created employment for many, some have become engineering, procurement and construction contractors, vendors and project implementing partners. Bhadla created many EPC contractors who are ubiquitous across solar hubs in the country,” Bansal said.
The local people, who do not want to sell their land and would rather lease out, have also benefited. Ramakant Jangid, an EPC contractor, said: “Ten years ago, a hectare used to cost Rs 2,500. Now, the price has gone up to Rs 2.5 lakh. Those who do not want to sell their land, lease it. From an acre of land, the annual income for a farmer used to be around Rs 5,000. But they are getting Rs 25,000. ”
In order to promote solar power generation, the Rajasthan government has made it easy for developers by exempting them from land conversion. Some local people say they have not benefited as much as the region has developed. Raza Khan, the sarpanch of Bhadla, said: “Water is a big issue. The companies use water to clean the solar panels. Secondly, because the whole area has been used for solar plants, there is no space for us to graze goats, sheep and cows. We want the government and the companies to compensate us. I had 100 sheep, now there are 10 left. ”
In recent years, robots are being used to clean the panels and that does not require water. But the technology is still unfit for panels mounted on uneven surfaces, so it is not widely used.