India's prime minister Manmohan Singh has approved a US$19 billion plan to make the country a global leader in solar energy over the next three decades. The ambitious project would see a massive expansion in installed solar capacity, and aims to reduce the price of electricity generated from solar energy to match that from fossil fuels by 2030.

The 'solar mission' was first mooted as part of India's national action plan on climate change, announced in June 2008. According to a draft mission document whose targets were approved on 3 August, installed solar capacity would be hiked from its current 5 MW to 20 GW by 2020, 100 GW by 2030 and 200 GW by 2050 -- more than the current 150 GW power generation capacity of all India's coal, gas and nuclear plants.

Officials say the plan shows that the country is serious about its intention to stem global warming, ahead of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

"In my view, India should embrace solar purely from the point of energy security, irrespective of global warming," says Jayaraman Srinivasan, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. "We should have pursued this project from the 1950s with the same vigour we showed for our space and nuclear programmes."

Solar road

A detailed road map has been drawn up to 2020. By then, according to the mission document, solar lighting will be available for 20 million households and 42 million tonnes of CO2 emissions will be saved annually by the switch to solar energy. The government plans to create a solar fund with initial investment of $1.1 billion and build it up by taxing fossil fuels and the power generated from them -- 0.1 cents for every kWh produced. By 2030, it hopes to reduce the cost of electricity from photovoltaic cells to around 10 cents per kWh, matching the price of electricity derived from conventional fuels.

The plan will be pushed forward by a mixture of other policy and regulatory measures. Those include making it mandatory for existing thermal power plants to generate at least 5% of their capacity from solar power, and for government buildings to install photovoltaic panels on rooftops. Producers connected to the grid will be able to sell their excess solar electricity to utilities; solar-power projects get a 10-year tax holiday; and other 'carrots' for the industry include the duty-free import of raw materials and priority bank loans.

An autonomous solar-energy authority will be created to execute the mission, but the existing solar-energy centre near New Delhi will be upgraded into an 'apex research institute' to coordinate solar-research centres across the country and promote foreign collaboration. The mission document recommends introducing solar-energy courses to the Indian Institutes of Technology, and creating a fellowship programme to train 100 Indian scientists a year in world-class institutions.

Tough transition

Some are sceptical abut the mission's chance of success. "Going from 5 MW to 20 GW in 11 years looks like science fiction," says Manu Sharma, at the Centre for Social Markets, a non-governmental organization based in New Delhi. Sharma, a campaign coordinator for the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, points out that India's ten solar-panel manufacturers together have just 80 MW of solar-panel production capacity.

But Srinivasan thinks the transition to solar can be just as rapid as it was from wood to coal or coal to oil. As for the costs of solar power, "technology is rapidly changing worldwide and costs will come down once photovoltaic panels are mass produced," says K. S. Narayanan, who works on polymer solar cells at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research at Bangalore. "We see incremental growth in efficiency of our solar cells in our lab, and globally the scene is changing faster," he adds.

Srinivasan says the solar mission will facilitate India's negotiations at Copenhagen, making its position stronger in resisting a legally binding cap on emissions. But, he adds, as a responsible nation whose economy and population are growing rapidly, India should not make the "mistakes" of the developed world. "The solar mission is a win-win proposition as it promises to bring down air pollution, cut down oil bills, and contribute to a greener world," he says.