Indian singer sparks surge in solar panel interest on Twitter

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When popular Indian singer Chinmayi Sripaada shared a photo of freshly cleaned rooftop solar panels at her in-laws’ Chennai home on social media, she spotlighted how her family is tapping into clean power as energy demand rises amid more extreme heat.

In response, some of her 1 million Twitter followers wrote back, asking about the cost of solar panels, where they could get more information and how to set one up on their own houses.

“I replied to everyone who had questions, sharing details of how we did ours,” Sripaada, who records songs for Indian movies, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, seated on a traditional swing in her living room in a leafy Chennai neighborhood.

“Honestly, I was expecting questions since they [government] don’t make it easy for anyone,” she said. “The information put out by government is almost inaccessible and people give up after a point, even if they are interested in solar power.”

India has seen the hottest March in more than 100 years according to the India Meteorological Department, with officials forecasting above normal maximum temperatures to continue in April across many regions.

The sweltering heat has already seen a surge in the use of air-conditioning and further high demand is expected through the Indian summer.

States such as Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Meghalaya recorded the highest power demand growth rates in March, government data shows.

Today, 40% of India’s installed electricity capacity comes from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro.

According to India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, only 5.7 gigawatts (GW) of solar rooftop projects had been set up by last November — just a fraction of the 40 GW rooftop solar target for the end of 2022.

A 2021 Asian Development Bank report noted that, of all rooftop solar energy deployed in India, the residential sector was the worst performer.

As well as the high cost of installing solar panels and delays in getting meters and securing state approval, a big reason for the low uptake of rooftop solar on people’s homes is lack of awareness, researchers and consumer campaigners say.

While residents know about the national rooftop solar scheme, most lack specific details regarding the technology, costs, maintenance requirements, performance and system life.

“Awareness is not a priority with state governments because at present they also own [thermal] power distribution utilities and see solar as competition,” said K. Vishnu Mohan Rao, a researcher with the nonprofit Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG).

“There is information out there, but the entire point of awareness is to help people demystify a complex system. No one is breaking down the logistics of setting up rooftop solar for residents across India,” he added.

One alternative gaining in popularity for inhabitants of apartment blocks with limited roof space is “digital solar,” where customers invest in panels mounted on schools, malls and other sites in return for credits on their power bills.

Outreach needed

A 2019 study of a New Delhi neighborhood by the nonprofit Council on Energy, Environment and Water found that word of mouth was the most common source of information for residents, followed by solar vendors, television and power utilities.

Rao has had a similar experience in Chennai and other districts of Tamil Nadu state where CAG carries out awareness and outreach programs using posters, videos, demonstrations and allowing people to “touch and feel” a solar panel.

“The responsibility and cost of creating awareness around this is on the vendors right now,” said Selna Saji, head of policy advocacy and market strategy at renewable energy firm SunEdison.

“But governments have a larger reach and are a more trusted source for people. The impact of government promoting rooftop solar and saying it is beneficial for people will be far greater and result in a faster switch over to green energy,” she said.

Officials at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy were not immediately available for comment.

But in a 2021 parliamentary committee report on energy, the ministry stated that it periodically asks implementing agencies to publicize the benefits of rooftop solar through the media, workshops and conferences.

It has also developed a mobile app and a website, SPIN, to provide consumers with information on how to set-up rooftop solar, and has asked all states to do the same.

‘Zero rupee’ bills

Singer Sripaada, 37, said she put out her weekend post on rooftop solar because summer had arrived and she thought people might be interested to find out more about making the switch.

She had previously kept her social media followers updated on her family’s rooftop solar journey, sharing the challenges and the frustrations of unsuccessfully trying to persuade the residents of her mother’s apartment block to install panels.

“It has definitely become much hotter, and every summer we are seeing an increasing energy deficit as more air-conditioners run and demand for power surges. People are also paying more for power now,” she said.

“But my father-in-law has been getting electricity bills that say ‘zero rupees’ since the rooftop solar was set-up. Also, he is able to put extra power he generates back to the grid. It is a win-win and I do my bit to promote it,” she added.