Can Chennai really shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050?

The Chennai Climate Action Plan lays out strategies to achieve 100% renewable energy use by 2050. What would it take to make that happen?

The Chennai Climate Action Plan (CCAP) is a document prepared and released by the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) with the support of C40 and Urban Management Centre and aligned to C40’s Climate Action Planning framework. CCAP has some alarming findings that should make Chennaiites sit up and take notice. 

According to the document, 100m of the coast is at risk of submersion as a result of a likely rise in sea levels by as much as 7cm in the next five years. North Chennai Thermal Power Plants are going to be impacted as well, which will require replacement by 2050, mentions CCAP. 

Increasing the usage of renewable energy in Chennai is one of the six priority sectors proposed by the GCC to mitigate the crisis and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The document lays out a game plan for this shift to 100% renewable energy in Chennai, through a mix of short and medium-term plans while proposing action points to make this shift feasible. 

It is pertinent to look at the pathways proposed and assess what it would take to really translate some of these propositions to reality in the city.

Read more: How to get a rooftop solar power connection for your Chennai home

Short-term plans for renewable energy in Chennai

Revision of tariffs for consumer solar and net metering installations

Revising solar tariff is one of GCC’s short-term goal (2025-30) to achieve 100% renewable energy in Chennai. But would GCC hold talks with Tamil Nadu Electricity Regulatory Commission (TNERC) to increase the net feed-in charges? Can it omit network charges, a concept introduced by TNERC in its recent billing? 

While domestic consumers can choose between net metering and net feed-in, others – commercial and institutional – can only opt for net feed-in, according to the current tariff order released by the TNERC in October 2021.

Net metering Vs Net feed-in

Through net metering, consumers can export surplus solar energy to the grid and can be billed only for the difference. In its explainers, Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA) mentions, “A consumer imports during a billing cycle 900 kWh (units) and exports 500 kWh. The electricity bill will be (for) 400 kWh.” Conversely, If the export energy exceeds the imported energy, the excess will be carried over to the next billing cycle.

In the net feed-in method, consumers who export their surplus units of solar are compensated at a fixed rate by TANGEDCO and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).

In net metering, a unit of electricity and a unit of solar generated holds an equal monetary value while in net feed-in, consumers who export surplus energy to the grid are compensated with the current solar net feed-in tariffs, which are as follows according to the tariff order:   

  • INR 3.61 per kWh (25 years fixed) for solar system capacities up to 10 kW
  • INR 3.37 per kWh for solar system capacities from 11 to 150 kW
  • INR 3.10 per kWh for solar system capacities from 151 to 999 kW

“While the electricity department bills us Rs 6.75 (for high tension industrial tariff) per every unit of electricity consumed, it pays us less than Rs 4 for the energy supplied to the grid of which again the network charges of 96p for every generated unit is deducted. It is an unfair compensation that pushes away potential consumers in the industrial sector,” says a member of the Tamil Nadu Solar Energy Developers Association, proposing an increase in net feed-in tariff on par with the electricity charges. 

“Net metering, which was reintroduced for domestic consumers after two years, should be extended to other sectors too without the network charges,” the member adds. 

As with compensation under the net feed-in system, there is also the element of network charges to be considered when one talks of revision of tariff in the short term. Similar to capacity charges in Telecom, TNERC introduced network charges for providing its grid to consumers for the first time in Tamil Nadu in the tariff order released last year.  

As TANGEDCO provides the grid for generating solar energy, it levies a charge on both net-metering and net feed-in consumers. “Grid interactive support is the ingredient component of any grid-connected solar system without which the solar generating system would become non-functional,” states the tariff order.  

“The current tariff order is fair except for the network charges levied on all the consumers. When revising the tariff charges, can GCC exclude network charges?  But even if GCC aims to exclude network charges, how can it do so? How can GCC propose a revision of charges when it has no influence on TNERC and TANGEDCO?” questions Martin Scherfler, co-founder of Auroville Consulting, a unit of the non-profit organization Auroville Foundation working to develop sustainable urban and industrial development policies and ecologically friendly technologies. 

Experts question the feasibility of tariff revision considering TNERC’s intent to increase tariff rates. A senior official of TNERC tells Citizen Matters that the decision to exclude network charges would be impossible. “The tariff order was drafted based on the direction from MNRE. It is high time network charges are levied on consumers to make up for the infrastructural development,” the official says. 

“GCC has not specified whether it aims to increase or decrease the existing solar tariff. Increasing the tariff would result in losses for TANGEDCO and decreasing it would push consumers away from solar (under a net feed-in model). Does GCC have a plan to turn it into a financially incentivising model?  The action point is vague and doesn’t propose a solution to the losses,” says K Vishnu Mohan Rao, Senior Researcher, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG).

Medium-term plans for renewable energy in Chennai

Integrating solar installations in buildings with shared rooftops

Rooftop solar in buildings with consumers sharing rooftops, such as multi-storeyed apartments and IT sector buildings, can be a game-changer in minimizing carbon footprint and cutting down electricity costs. This is one of the medium-term goals laid down in the draft plan for 2030-40.

“Did the civic body identify potential structures? Do they even have the data?” questions Martin. “GCC should standardise solar panel designs, making it easier for bulk installations. Reduction of property tax for those who installed rooftop solar has proved to be a successful strategy in cities globally,” he adds. 

Solar panels installed on a Chennai rooftop for renewable energy generation
According to a Greenpeace India report released in April 2018, the total rooftop solar potential of Chennai is 1,380 MW. A big share of this, nearly 46%, can come from the residential sector. Representational image. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

While this action point can be easily implemented in commercial setups, compromising on terrace space can be a contentious issue in apartments.  In earlier reporting on rooftop solar in multi-storeyed buildings, we learnt that the builders chose to lease the structures rather than abide by the law that mandates the installation of solar panels in 1/3rd of the terrace space. While the primary reason for the builders to opt for the shortcut is to save on costs, they are also worried about losing customers if the terrace space is occupied.

“People use the terrace space in mid-range apartments (with not enough open space or gym facilities) to walk, conduct meetings with residents and organise daily yoga classes. It is the main part of their recreation and compromising on it would be a loss to the business,” says Narayanan V, a builder from Tambaram. 

However, a Padur-based housing society, Mantri Synergy has shown that the plan is feasible by installing rooftop solar in unused terrace spaces, using green electricity to power their common lighting.  

“Why wait till 2030 to implement it? GCC should bring out guidelines now to encourage more citizens to go solar,” says Vishnu Mohan Rao. 

Accelerating rooftop solar through roof lease solar, empanelled service providers

Despite having the scope to generate solar energy, it is the lack of technical assistance that restricts multi-housing societies from embracing this renewable energy option in Chennai.  

“Should we go for net metering or net feed-in? How do we avail of the subsidy? How soon can we see a profit on my investment in solar? These are a few among many questions that bother us when we think of setting up rooftop solar. The avenues in the government are not easy and citizen-friendly,” says Karthik Kumar, a property manager at Avadi. 

“Renting out terrace space to private solar developers proved to be an economically feasible option in Bengaluru. They set up the panels and maintain them. The housing societies can use the power in-house and export the excess to the grid,” says Martin. 

Karnataka introduced the model in 2019 to boost solar projects. Under this model, a developer/investor can install, own and operate solar plants on the rooftop by paying monthly rent for the space used. 

“Chennai shouldn’t have to wait till 2040 to see this happen. A lot of solar potential is being wasted as this form of renewable energy in Chennai as it is still an unknown subject for many,” says Arumugam Dakshinamoorthy, a solar developer. 

The Puducherry Model

Chennai can follow the Puducherry model, where the power generated on a rooftop can be sold to anyone in the Union Territory after an agreement with the Electricity Department. The concept of group net metering/virtual net metering where a solar rooftop installed on a single piece of land is used to power many households/establishments is well implemented in all the Union Territories. 

“Puducherry owns meagre Conventional Power Generation Plants within the UT and relies on the neighbouring states for about 95% of its power requirement. This is one of the government’s initiatives towards self-sufficiency,” says Sahayaraj, a developer, who has worked on solar projects in the Union Territory.

The procedure is quite simple: A proposal that includes the service numbers of the power-sharing establishments should be submitted to the Electricity Department along with the common rooftop identified for the Solar Plant. After assessing the proposal for its scope, the department gets into an agreement with the consumer and approves installation. 

“Consumers can decide the cost of sharing the energy generated and the cost of installing the plant. For example, one of my customers is sharing the power generated in his school rooftop solar plant with two residences within Puducherry for around Rs 5 per unit. As the maximum EB tariff in Puducherry is around Rs 6.30, it benefits both the school and the residences in cutting electricity costs,” says Sahayaraj. 

Besides the leasing option, GCC aims to ensure solar energy uptake through empanelled service providers i.e the developers empanelled by TEDA through a tendering system.

The state has had no empanelled vendors for two years in the past five years, creating hurdles for a lot of consumers. 

“I needed technical assistance with the current scheme and data about trustworthy vendors. I didn’t go for rooftop solar, as there were no empanelled vendors last year,” says Rajagopal K, who owns a restaurant in Pallavaram. 

Attributing the discontinuation of empanelment to COVID-19, a TEDA official says things have since been rectified. “Following a tender floated in May 2022, TEDA empanelled 44 vendors in October 2022. These vendors can help consumers get subsidies from the state and central agencies.”

Read more: Delay in disbursal of solar subsidies in Chennai affects consumers and developers

Expanding DCR provisions to require solar in all new multi-family projects and all commercial buildings

To ensure higher efficiency standards and encourage local manufacturing, the MNRE introduced the Domestic Content Requirement (DCR), mandating the use of both solar photovoltaic (SPV) cells and modules manufactured domestically as per specifications and testing requirements fixed by MNRE. One of the medium term plans in the Climate Action Plan is to extend this requirement to all new multi-family projects and commercial properties

“There are vital questions pertaining to this action point as GCC should identify local manufacturers and sign an MoU. GCC should draw a roadmap about finances and challenges in implementing solar in multi-family projects (resettlement buildings),” says Deepak Krishnan, Associate Director, Energy, World Resources Institute. 

When it comes to commercial buildings, the problem lies not in expanding provisions but in implementation. Chennai’s multi-storeyed buildings flouted the law that mandated the setting up of solar panels in 1/3rd of the terrace space. Rather than setting up the panels, a majority of buildings temporarily leased the structures. 

“A committee should be formed with officials from GCC, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), and TANGEDCO to ensure that there are no gaps in implementation,” says developer Arumugam Dakshninamoorthy. 

Officials from TNERC say that the civic body has not consulted them yet to discuss the action points for Chennai. “These action points are complicated. We are in no position to reduce the tariff charges or omit network charges. But we are certain of working out a model through which GCC can announce subsidies for Chennai consumers,” adds a senior official from TNERC, seeking anonymity.

While the CCAP lays out various measures, effective implementation would be the key challenge that lies ahead for the civic body.

M S Prasanth, Deputy Commissioner, Works, GCC says, “An NGO is working on the CCAP for the civic body. The draft report is yet to be published. We haven’t approved the plan as yet”.

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