Complete ecosystem needed to ensure India’s solar success – UL India interview

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Discussing the current state of solar testing, standardization and certification in India, testing body UL’s Chakradhar Byreddy welcomes the Indian Government’s push to position its renewable energy market as a global leader. However, he says a complete ecosystem must be created to ensure its plans are successfully achieved.

pv magazine: Given the revised, and very ambitious, solar target set by the Indian government, is the country ready to meet respective testing, standardization and certification requirements?

Chakradhar Byreddy: India has taken global leadership in the solar sector, and the government has challenged itself to meet and surpass the 100 GW target for solar by 2022. While the ambitious vision to transform India as a renewable superpower is laudable, we must also be vigilant about the performance of the projects in the long run. The quality control order for solar products introduced by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), which will be enforced from August this year, is a necessary step to secure the quality and reliability of renewable power in the country.

In light of the legislation announced last year, both private as well as government laboratories have ramped up their capacity to meet demand that will arise from mandatory in-country testing. At UL, for instance, we have doubled our capacity for solar testing in accordance with the Indian standards, devised by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

Currently, solar energy is contributing to 21 GW of the renewable energy mix. We need to add 12-15 GW every year to realize India’s solar dream. The government is also contemplating expansion of solar technology with hybrid projects and floating solar parks. Even as these initiatives are welcome, there should be a complete ecosystem in place to ensure the success of the solar programme – whether in terms of laboratory infrastructure, the registration scheme and the ability of manufacturing community to show compliance.

The government must therefore invest in expanding the laboratory infrastructure, as well as skilling for technical due diligence, energy yield assessment and forecasting to enable on-ground execution of the program. We also need system-level standards to protect grid stability, which the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) is working on.

What are the solar PV product requirements specific to India? As most solar components are imported, what are the challenges in testing, standardization and certification? How are these addressed?

Even before the announcement of the quality control order that mandates in-country testing as per the Indian standards, the MNRE defined guidelines for solar products in accordance with the IEC Standards, to ensure quality of products deployed in India.

As the Indian standards for solar PV modules, inverters devices and batteries are harmonized with IEC, the main challenge is to ensure compliance to the standards. With the element of surveillance introduced by the BIS in the new regulation, there will be greater accountability on part of the players, both domestic and international, to ensure the supply of quality products for projects in the country.

To support a fledgling industry like solar, it is important that regulations act as a complimentary force that sustains growth rather than inhibit players from participation. A graded approach to enhance the intensity of mandatory compliance is necessary, and it is heartening that the government has chosen the right path in this regard.

Do you see solar manufacturers adhering to certification/standardization guidelines?

India’s low tariff driven solar PV programme is hugely attractive to a wide spectrum of players in the industry. While some manufacturers are quality conscious and ensure uniformity across the product line, some would be diligent in compliance only with the ‘golden sample’—the product they submit for testing. To gain competitive edge in the tender process, they may not ensure quality compliance as a norm for mass production, as compliance is a time-consuming effort.

While market surveillance will address this issue, it is vital to create a quality culture in the manufacturing community, like in the pharma sector, where players view compliance not as one-time phenomenon, but as a business priority that will provide them with greater market access.

The government could also, at a later stage, introduce pre-dispatch inspections, where a batch of products, rather than a single product of a consignment, is tested for quality assurance before these are deployed in a project.

With respect to the testing, standardization and certification field itself, how much of it is indigenous?

Before the quality control order, the testing industry mainly catered to Indian players. Now, with the introduction of mandatory in-country testing, nearly 80% of the demand comes from international players, primarily because compliance is the essential first step to gain market access.

Like other high-demand sectors, such as medical devices and electronics, developing a robust manufacturing ecosystem for components is essential to increase the share of the local manufacturing community in the vibrant market for solar energy in the country.

How do you compare Indian standards vis-a-vis those in developed countries? Do you feel India can export solar products matching international standards?

A basic requirement for export is that the product must be compliant with relevant standards or regulations. The fact that a small number of Indian manufacturers cater to the export market for solar products is proof that Indian players have the ability to gain market entry abroad.

With India being among the top three nations for renewable power, it is natural that the market for solar is here and local manufacturers are therefore keen on addressing the local demand. It is critical to note that Indian standards across sectors are always harmonized with international norms, and with country deviations that address specific local conditions. In the case of solar, while Indian standards are concurrent with the IEC Standards, the regulator may introduce variations in testing for certain environmental and climatic conditions, like dust and mist, and do away with certain requirements, like testing for hail storms.

The international community is gearing up to adopt the 2016 revision of the IEC Standards, which takes into account the impact of increased UV radiation over the past decade and also calls for evaluation of power and changes in sequence of testing, among other considerations.

It is also appreciable that the government is conscious of upgrading the Indian standards in the solar sector to the latest changes in the international standards, but in a phased manner, depending on the ecosystem and market considerations of the stakeholders involved.

In rooftop solar, consumers question whether  or not PV systems will last the advertised lifetime, and be as efficient as they claim to be. How can such issues be addressed?

As a price conscious segment, it is essential that consumers in rooftop solar are educated about the inverse relationship between price and quality, and are made aware of the long-term implications of poor quality installations. The biggest risk befalls small consumers, whose power requirement is limited to one or a few kilowatts.

To assuage consumer fears, the government must create a robust ecosystem for standards and certification, both at the individual product as well as the systems level. To ensure quality and reliability of power, there must be a surveillance mechanism for the entire manufacturing supply chain along the lines of empanelment of solar developers that is present now.

Another mechanism is to have a fair price benchmark that would ensure no compromise on quality and performance of the rooftop solar assets. There must be a transparent system for consumers to access a list of all manufacturers in the market and the prices they supply at. The California Energy Commission in the United States is a good model to follow.

Most of the damage to solar panels occurs during transportation as the respective guidelines w.r.t. labour and vehicles used are not followed in India. How do you manage such challenges in testing?

This is a serious issue, which the government is contemplating. There is a BIS committee already in place (where UL is a member) to evaluate the IEC standard for transportation and shipping of solar panels, and customize it to Indian road and labor conditions.

Presently, from the laboratory perspective, we perform electroluminesence (EL) imaging before proceeding with testing to evaluate whether the sample is free from breakages or scratches. The EL camera acts like an X-Ray and detects damages that cannot be seen by the naked eye. We can issue reports on damaged panels for developers to claim insurance or use warranty.

What are the incentives/support available for testing, standardization and certification labs?

Currently, the laboratories in India are only testing, and are not involved in certification. Private laboratories, to maintain their non-partisanship, do not need incentives or support. It is, however, important that the government invests in research and development for components, provides incentives like tax sops and depreciation allowance to boost the manufacturing community. This is essential for Indian players to reap the dividend of ‘Make in India’, as they are now assemblers and not end-to-end solution providers. The government must also create country-specific standards for solar cells, which is missing right now.

What are the opportunities for those willing to enter this segment?

To realize the goal of ‘Make in India,’ we need research-based test laboratories that can guide and advise the manufacturing community for both development, as well as compliance testing. Laboratories can especially play a prominent role in handholding the component sector.

As a co-founder of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), member countries will look up to India for support in standards and testing as well, creating additional need for expansion of the testing, inspection and certification (TIC) industry.

While the opportunities for testing are vibrant, it is important for new entrants to realize that TIC is not a profiteering sector, it is rather driven by the value. TIC companies have a unique privilege of bringing value to every stakeholder in the manufacturing ecosystem, from the component to the end product stage. We are able to engage with each touchpoint in the supply chain and bring stakeholders together with no agenda other than to better safety, quality and performance outcomes and build consumer trust.

Any other important points you would like to talk about?

As the solar sector, like the wind industry, undergoes consolidation and witnesses the entry of new players which do not have the expertise to perform the health assessment of projects, this has created new service opportunities for technical due diligence. Given that solar power is ultimately about the performance of the projects and not just installed capacity, technical due diligence should be the first layer, before commercial and financial diligence.