Before Govindan Satheeshan installed solar panels on the roof of his house in the southern Indian state of Kerala two years ago as part of a government plan, the 70-year-old retiree wasn’t sure.

Would the panels produce enough electricity? Are they too expensive? Would the system suffer technical malfunctions?

But his high utility bills of up to 15,000 rupees ($ 205) every two months motivated him to sign up. Today his bills have fallen close to zero.

Satheeshan is so pleased with the results that he invited anyone unsure about installing a solar system for their home to visit Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.

“People still doubt the feasibility of solar modules on the roof. If anyone is interested but skeptical, they are welcome to visit my house and I will clarify (the benefits), ”he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Now hoping to convince more residents to make the switch, Kerala is launching a new solar rooftop program in January to cut CO2 emissions and reduce the state’s reliance on imported electricity.

The Soura (Sun) project aims to install solar panels in 75,000 households that will feed 350 megawatts (MW) of electricity into the state power grid.

Combined with the 20,000 homes that had already installed solar panels as part of a previous initiative, the new Soura project will help Kerala get around 10 percent of its electricity needs from solar energy, according to KSEB, the state electricity authority.

Despite Kerala’s solar innovations – from the world’s first solar airport to the largest floating solar power plant in India – the state has lagged far behind the country in using the renewable energy source.

According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), Kerala ranks middle among the 28 Indian states in terms of installed solar capacity.

Soura is offering a subsidy to encourage residents to sign up for the project and dispel the common belief that solar panels are only for the rich, explained A Nasarudeen, a CFEB project leader.

“We tweaked this project to make sure that ordinary people benefit from it. Your houses will be mini solar power plants. By researching solar energy, they can cover their electricity needs independently, ”he said in an interview.

Any excess electricity generated by the rooftop systems can be bought back to KSEB at a price of 3 rupees ($ 0.041 USD) per kilowatt hour.

An employee works on a solar cell production line at the Jupiter Solar Power Limited facility in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh [File: Ajay Verma/Reuters]The project is part of the government’s plan to generate 1,000 MW – around a quarter of its electricity needs – from the sun by 2022.

KSEB figures show that about 30 percent of the electricity Kerala consumes is produced in the state, with the rest coming from other states or the national power grid at a cost of about 80 billion rupees (about $ 1.1 billion) per year .

With a population of more than 33 million in the last census, Kerala is India’s third largest state and leaves little land to build large solar grids, said Aneesh S Prasad of the government’s agency for research and technology for new and renewable energy.

The government is therefore trying to get the roofs of the residents to use the energy of the sun, said the state program manager.

CT Ajith Kumar, an energy expert at the Integrated Rural Technology Center, a research and development facility in Kerala, said the state’s focus on solar energy makes both economic and environmental sense.

“To reduce carbon emissions, Kerala has no option but solar,” he said.

“We cannot cut trees or destroy forests to build new hydropower plants. Thermal power plants would generate more emissions. However, solar energy is absolutely environmentally friendly. We have to research it. “

In addition to the estimated 15 billion rupees (approximately US $ 206 million), the Soura project – paid for by the MNRE, KSEB and solar panel manufacturers who are signing up – an additional 5 billion (approximately US $ 69 million) rupees for use a sub-program for low-income consumers.

The beneficiaries only have to pay 12 percent of the installation costs of their solar modules, said Nasarudeen from KSEB.

Homeowners are allowed to use 25 percent of the electricity they produce, the rest goes into the grid, he said.

Even if the affordability issue is overcome, the project faces other challenges, said Ambalamukku-resident Jacob Varghese, 65, who installed solar panels as part of the previous roof plan.

He and other residents he knows had to wait a long time to get approval from the KSEB and visited his offices many times.

“Then after installing the solar panels, it was the next amazing effort to get the subsidy,” he said.

“As a businessman, I had the patience and financial background to deal with the initial hiccups. But could ordinary people cope with them? “He asked.

Nasarudeen said the KSEB is confident it can address these issues.

By engaging more installation companies, the government plans to reduce the waiting time for residents to no more than seven days and to pay subsidies once installation begins.

Swapna Ebi Varkey, a 48-year-old housewife in Thiruvananthapuram who installed solar panels on her roof a few years ago, said she was keen to see the government successfully try to get Kerala’s homes running in the sun.

“Suppose every house in Kerala became a solar power plant on a small roof. Then we could easily make the state clean and green, ”she said.

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