During lockdown, Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, enjoyed some of the freshest air that the capital has seen in decades. Having witnessed the benefits of eliminating pollution from their cities, politicians the world over are talking about “building back better” in the wake of Covid-19. For many countries that means accelerating investment in renewable infrastructure to meet new net-zero commitments.

For India, building back better has another dimension, which is the need to align with its new industrial strategy of developing its domestic manufacturing base. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to build a “Self-Reliant India” is driving the government’s shift in procurement strategy to restrict imports and develop indigenous manufacturing capabilities.

Neil Spann is CEO of Power Roll

India has set an ambitious target for renewables, aiming for 450 GW of new capacity by 2030—the majority of which is expected to come from deploying solar PV. The challenge for India is that up to now, like most countries, it has been reliant on imports for the vast majority of solar products. For example, in 2019 India imported ₹128 billion ($1.7 billion) of solar cells and modules, with nearly 80% coming from China.

The fact is that today, China dominates nearly all aspects of solar use and manufacturing. Making traditional polysilicon solar PV modules is complex. To make them efficiently and cheaply requires large, semi-automated factories and few countries can match the breadth and depth of China’s solar manufacturing ecosystem, which is fully integrated across the production of polysilicon, wafers, cells and modules.

The question is, with relatively low levels of  indigenous solar manufacturing and with aspirations to become a giga-scale manufacturing centre, can India develop its own solar industry when there is an urgent need to boost access to clean energy, electrify transport and deliver the wider benefits for society?

IP licensing and disruptive technology

Competing with China’s solar PV industry is a tall order for any country, but India’s “self-reliant” ambition is an opportunity to start afresh.

If the solar PV industry was starting from scratch, we would manufacture solar material that is light enough to be used on fragile, rural rooftops; is cheap enough to displace the use of fossil fuel power generation both on- and off-grid; and can be manufactured at gigawatt scales using simple processes.

Power Roll says that the use of lightweight, flexible film “massively expands the use of solar for existing applications and enables brand new possibilities. The company says its technology uses no rare earth materials and is recyclable. Courtesy: Power Roll

Such enabling technologies are on the horizon. Power Roll is a UK company developing just such a flexible, solar film. The company is working with manufacturing partners to license its intellectual property (IP) for local manufacture. What makes this strategy possible is that producing solar film is a relatively simple four-step process, which uses roll-to-roll manufacturing and other techniques borrowed from established industries.

Power Roll has already established a successful manufacturing joint venture with Indian firm Deki Electronics. The joint venture, based in Uttar Pradesh, is using Power Roll’s flexible film to make capacitors—electric storage devices that feature in virtually all electrical products.

Power Roll solar
Power Roll says its flexible solar film “is capable of producing ultra-low cost electricity. At $0.03/watt to manufacture, it’s much cheaper than existing flexible PV solutions and delivers the lowest levelized energy cost of any solar technology. Courtesy: Power Roll

Developing manufacturing competence in an innovative solar film would also enable India to address an imbalance in its deployment of solar. The country’’ solar capacity has grown exponentially since 2010, but its success in solar suffers from a major distortion. India has 20,000 MW of utility-scale solar plants supplying electricity to the grid, but only 1,000 MW of small, decentralized rooftop solar installations. A lightweight and low-cost solar solution could open up this massive opportunity.

There are many benefits of deploying solar to India’s 640,000 villages. Most power will be consumed where it is generated, which reduces the need for new transmission infrastructure. With agriculture consuming 18% of India’s generating capacity, an attractive feed-in tariff for decentralized solar power generation in rural India would lead to a surge in private investment and an increase in farmers’ incomes.

Innovative technologies also present an opportunity for India’s businesses to take a lead in next-generation solar by manufacturing locally under license. Manufacturing such technology at gigawatt-scale would see the cost of solar modules drop to $0.03/watt.

The transfer of technology like Power Roll’s can help India shift to a low-carbon growth trajectory and help to meet its renewables goals while aligning with its “Made in India” industrial strategy.

By generating cheaper, clean power using solar, we can start to electrify India’s transport systems and factories so that citizens of Delhi and across India can breathe clean air once again.

Neil Spann is CEO of Power Roll, a UK-based solar film manufacturing company.