Difficult to imagine that with all the times India has appeared in these pages, and separately all the times that solar has appeared, this is the first time they appear together:
India’s Quest to Build the World’s Largest Solar Farms
Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park, a clean-power plant the size of Manhattan, could be a model for the world—or a cautionary tale.
Every morning in the Tumakuru District of Karnataka, a state in southern India, the sun tips over the horizon and lights up the green-and-brown hills of the Eastern Ghats. Its rays fall across the grasslands that surround them and the occasional sleepy village; the sky changes color from sherbet-orange to powdery blue. Eventually, the sunlight reaches a sea of glass and silicon known as Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park. Here, within millions of photovoltaic panels, lined up in rows and columns like an army at attention, electrons vibrate with energy. The panels cover thirteen thousand acres, or about twenty square miles—only slightly smaller than the area of Manhattan.
As the planet turns and the sun climbs, electricity streams from the panels to eight nearby substations, and, in one of them, a computer monitor decorated with a red hibiscus flower registers their collective power in megawatts. In the predawn hours, the solar park consumes a small amount of electricity for lights and computers, so the monitor may show a negative number. But, within twenty minutes of sunrise on a morning in late February, the park was producing 158.32 megawatts, enough to power, on average, more than a hundred thousand Indian homes. As the temperature soared into the mid-nineties, the air seemed to shimmer with heat; a single ghostly raptor hovered over the area, looking for prey in whatever patches of grass remained. The wind gusted and overhead power lines hummed. Around 1 p.m., the park’s electricity output peaked at more than two thousand megawatts—enough for millions of homes.
Pavagada generates almost four times the power of the largest functioning solar farm in the U.S. The world’s biggest solar installation, Bhadla Solar Park, is in the North Indian state of Rajasthan; the second largest is in China. Pavagada, with a capacity exceeding two thousand megawatts, is in the running for third. In a few places, however, its high-tech panels are interrupted by plots of cropland. Some are fenced in with colorful old saris that waft in the wind. And nestled like islands within the silicon sea are five small villages, virtually untouched. They are not powered by Pavagada, at least not directly. “Twenty-two per cent of the electricity in Karnataka is generated here, but for us there is no power,” a local school administrator told me. Near the school, I saw a single street light and was told that it was funded not by Pavagada Solar Park but by the panchayat, the local village council.
In an office in the metropolis of Bengaluru, four hours south of the solar farm, I met N. Amaranath, the C.E.O. and general manager of Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited (K.S.P.D.C.L.), which operates Pavagada Solar Park. He had long, dark eyelashes; a salt-and-pepper beard; and three parallel streaks of white across his forehead, the tilak of a practicing Hindu. The Pavagada model is now being replicated around the country, Amaranath told me. “The government of India has a vision,” he said. India has pledged to meet half of its energy needs with renewables by 2030, and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. “That is a very ambitious project,” he went on. “Without the parks, that is not possible.”
India is a country of 1.4 billion people that continues to generate most of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. The success or failure of solar here will go a long way toward determining the speed of the world’s clean-energy transition, and thus the severity of our collective climate emergency. Many of the worst impacts of the crisis will be felt in South Asia, but the subcontinent is sunny enough that, in theory, it could eventually supply clean electricity to a large portion of humanity. Many more ultra-mega solar parks are in the works—and, as photovoltaic panels become even cheaper and more efficient, the primary obstacle to growth may no longer be technological. “Whenever you establish an industry, the main problem is about the land,” Amaranath told me. “The landowners are very attached. . . . They are not ready to spare it.” A fan blew warm air at us as he asked the thirteen-thousand-acre question: “How do you solve that problem?”…
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