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Bhadla: The Largest Solar Park in the World

Written by C. Christian Monson

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thar_Desert,_India.jpg

The Thar Desert: Temperatures surpassing 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 50 Celsius, average annual rainfall as low as four inches or 10 centimeters, dust storms with winds over 90 miles an hour or 150 kilometers per hour, and miles upon miles of infertile soil blown into sand dunes. It doesn’t exactly sound like a paradise, and indeed, a good portion of the desert has been declared “unlivable,” including Bhadla, an area about 43 miles or 70 kilometers northwest of Phalodi, India.

But just because humans can’t live there, does that mean there isn’t any way for us to utilize the land? Since 2016, the Bhadla Solar Park has proven that inhospitable terrain like the Thar Desert in India actually does have an important resource: solar radiation. The largest of its kind in the world, Bhadla covers 14,000 acres or more than 56 square kilometers, making it roughly the same size as Manhattan. So what does it take to build a city-sized solar power plant in such an unforgiving place—and was it worth it?

LET THERE BE LIGHT

With a current population of 1.38 billion, India is set to overtake China to become the largest country in the world by population as early as 2023. Supporting all those people requires a lot of electricity. Despite some 20% of Indians not having access to electricity, the nation still consumes some 3,790 GigaWatt-hours of power per day, more than the entire country of Nicaragua consumes in a year. 

Nevertheless, India is not a major producer of fossil fuels, ranking 20th in the world in oil production. As a result, the nation has been looking for alternative energy sources to power its growing population, and with some of the consistently sunniest weather in the world, they thought, why not start with sunlight?

Of course, building the world’s largest solar park was far from an overnight project. Specifically, it’s gone through four phases of investment and development, centered around the auctioning of the capacity to various energy companies around the globe.

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Phase I

Bhadla started out rather small with 420 MegaWatts of capacity, just 19% of its current 2,245-megaWatts. NTPC Limited, an electricity-generation firm owned in majority by the government of India, divided this into six packages of 70 megaWatts, which were then auctioned off to national and foreign energy companies.

Fortum, a company owned in majority by the Finnish government, quoted the lowest bid of 4.34 Rupees per kiloWatt hour for one of the packages, at the time one of the lowest India and the whole world had ever seen. For reference, this equates to 5.4 cents in US Dollars. Compare that the current price for electricity in Germany, the most expensive in the world at 39 cents per kiloWatt-hour.

Rising Sun Energy and Yarrow Infrastructure, private firms from India, as well as Solairedirect, a private firm from France, won the remaining packages with bids just a few Rupee cents higher.

Phase II

Bhadla’s success attracted much more interest in the second phase with 27 different companies bidding for 250 added megaWatts of capacity developed by the Solar Energy Corporation of India, another Indian government-owned energy company dedicated entirely to solar power. Commissioned in August 2017, Phase II added another 87.5 megaWatts divided between auction winners Charisma Energy, Rising Sun Energy and Sunseap group. It covers 346 acres and cost around $55 million to build.

Phase III

Phase III was much more extensive and added 1,000 megaWatts sold at two auctions of 500 megaWatts each. By this point, prices had dropped even lower. Auction winners included Hero Future Energies, the famous Japanese firm SoftBank Group, and Acme Solar, who bid just 2.44 Rupees or 3.1 US cents per kiloWatt-hour for 200 megaWatts, currently the cheapest electricity tariff in India and one of the cheapest in the world. 

Phase IV

The rest of the park’s 2,245 megaWatts were developed in Phase IV, becoming the world’s largest solar park in December 2018. Winners of this phase included Phelan Energy Group, a South African company, as well as Avaada Power, Airtel, Foxconn and Softbank Group again.

HICCUPS

For a project of its size, the development of the Bhadla Solar Park has actually gone relatively smoothly. That said, it hasn’t always been easy. For one thing, construction has been limited by road access. The nearest urban center is Phalodi, almost 50 miles away, and access is by the narrow Phalodi-Jemala Road along which the journey takes an hour and a half.

More significantly, the park has received resistance from residents in Phalodi and surrounding villages. Since the park’s 10 million solar panels take up so much space, they’ve inhibited much of the herding in the area where animals like cows and goats must range for long distances to find enough vegetation to survive in the desert climate. As a result, the park has made it more difficult for many in the area to support themselves.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thar_desert_1.JPG

The Indian government had originally promoted Bhadla as a source of employment that would replace the local farmers’ livelihoods, but up till now that hasn’t been the case. That’s because the park is in large part automated.

You see, another obstacle for the park has been the Thar Desert’s frequent sandstorms which block out the solar panels and leave dust on them that lowers their capacity. Consequently, they have to be cleaned, but instead of employing people, the many firms involved in the project have opted to use robots. 

For example, Solairedirect spent roughly $100 million to purchase automated cleaning services from Ecoppia, a company specifically developed to robotic solar panel cleaning. While this has meant many locals have ended up without the jobs they were hoping for, it has worked surprisingly well and kept Bhadla operating at its record-breaking capacity. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solar_Power_Plant_Maharashtra_I_in_state_of_Maharashtra,_India,_67.2-MWp_DCb.jpg_.jpg

STACKING UP

Okay, but what does being the world’s largest solar park really mean? For one thing, Bhadla was actually pretty cost effective. Total investment in the megaproject is estimated at around $1.3 billion. To compare, Hoover Dam has a slightly lower power-generation capacity at 2,080 megaWatts but cost almost three times as much to build at 3.6 billion in today’s Dollars.

Plus, it’s cheap and efficient when stacked up against other energy sources. For instance, the average price for coal-powered electricity in India is 3.20 Rupees or 4 cents per kiloWatt-hour, almost 33% more expensive than the solar power from Bhadla. 

In fact, Bhadla is part of the reason India has the cheapest solar power in the entire world. While large solar parks in the US usually cost around $1.50 per Watt to develop, megaprojects like Bhadla are nearly half the cost in India at just 79 cents per Watt.

As a result, India is getting serious about solar power, scrapping previous plans for coal-fired power plants that are now more expensive. By 2032, the government wants 40% of its electricity to come from renewable sources. The majority of that would be solar derived from Bhadla and the more than 30 similar parks around the country.

Perhaps a more ambitious goal, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in 2015 that by the end of 2022, the government wants solar power capacity to reach 100 gigaWatts. At the time, the entire world only had a solar power capacity of 177 gigaWatts and India just 2.5 gigaWatts, but Bhadla was right on the horizon.

The rapid development of solar parks like Bhadla have made India’s solar power program the third fastest growing in the world after only China and the United States. In 2021 alone they added over 10 gigaWatts for a total of 57 gigaWatts, 6.6% of their total electricity capacity. 

True, it’s still not 100 gigaWatts, and India has a long way to go to reach its goal. But with over 2 percent of it met by Bhadla alone, they’re definitely on their way. The only question is, will Bhadla keep its crown for long, or in their quest for inexpensive renewable energy, will India build an even bigger park someday to soak up the sun?

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