Karnataka’s confounding solar policy

BESCOM’s inability to purchase power has led to a bizarre solar policy which discourages and limits solar power generation.

The officials at the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC) recently announced that it would reduce the amount paid to individual producers of electricity using solar panels, which will create disincentives for people from becoming self-sufficient for their energy needs. This has come at a time when Karnataka has been facing an acute power shortage, as was demonstrated by the interminable power cuts in Bangalore over the past few months.

The Union and State government has been trying to encourage citizens to install roof top solar panels and produce electricity for their household consumption. Further, any excess electricity generated can be sold back to the grid at a predetermined rate. This also ties in with Prime Minister Modi’s new thrust on solar energy.

Paying the right price is the only way to encourage households to install solar panels

Paying the right price is the only way to encourage households to install solar panels

The response initially has been lukewarm. Since 2014, when KERC released its Karnataka Solar Policy that envisaged achieving a minimum of 400 MW of grid-connected solar rooftop plants and 1,600 MW of grid-connected utility scale solar projects in the State by 2018. The target for 2014–15 and 2015–16 was 100 MW each. However, only 144 customers have come on board in Karnataka and together, they generate 2.4 MW of power, which is grossly inadequate.

It is in this context that the downward revision of tariff paid to solar power generators seems bizarre. Initially producers were paid Rs.10.5 per unit produced, which was reduced to around Rs.9.51 and is now slated to decrease to Rs.6.50 per unit. The stated reason is that capital costs for installing of the solar panels have reduced. Another absolutely confounding proposal by KERC is to set a cap on power generation per customer. The discussion paper actually states that consumers generating electricity “far in excess of the sanctioned load should not be encouraged”. Imagine a state starved for power and experiencing power cuts up to 8 hours a day in its capital city complaining about excess power generation.

The real reason however, is quite straight forward. BESCOM does not have the money to pay Rs.9.51 per unit generated. Consider the current cost of electricity: a normal urban consumer pays Rs.2.70 per unit up to 30 units, Rs 4 per unit for consumption between 31 and 100 units, Rs 5.25 per unit for consumption between 101 and 200 units and Rs 6.25 per unit beyond 200 units per month. Even for high tension commercial users, the maximum rate applicable is Rs. 7.65 per unit for consumption beyond 200,000 units. Given this scenario, how can BESCOM possibly buy power generated by individual users at Rs. 9.50? It is then no surprise that it wants to reduce the price paid per unit of electricity generated and that it actually fears a situation where there is excess production and distribution of electricity.

The solution is not to reduce the amount paid to people who incur considerable costs in installing solar power. The reduced amount will inevitable further reduce the incentives for consumers to use solar energy. Leaving aside an infinitesimal set of consumers who might want to opt for solar energy out of environmental consciousness, most people will react to financial incentives, even if it manages only to cover the cost of installation over a long period.

The answer lies in BESCOM employing marginal cost pricing for the electricity it produces. The price of electricity in Bangalore (and most of India) is below the market price and thus, electricity supply companies (ESCOMs) have heavy losses in their balance sheets. This hampers the ESCOMs ability to purchase power, whether from private generators of solar power or distribution companies, and supply it to the end user. Raising electricity prices will ensure the supply companies have enough income to purchase electricity and provide uninterrupted power supply. Given the high costs associated with power outages (as this article points out), it is imperative to ensure continuous power supply.

Finally, it is high time that KERC introduced contestability and competition in the power sector. Allow private players into the market who can provide uninterrupted power to all at the market determined prices. Mumbai, for example rarely experiences power outages. This is because there are three suppliers of power: TATA, Reliance and BEST. Competition among private electricity suppliers along with the state electricity board will ensure that prices are market based and there are no interruptions in power supply to domestic, commercial and industrial units.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution. He tweets@anupammanur


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