Here comes the sun

5 min read
10 Feb 2018
5 min read
1297 words
FirstSolar, a Nepali solar energy company, has made it to the finals of the Solar Shark Tank to be held in the Netherlands soon. The teamís performing well should encourage other entrepreneurs to get into the solar-farm business too

In the fall of 2015, Sajan Sakya, the proprietor of Marco Polo Business Hotel, was at his wit's end. Back then Kathmandu used to be routinely crippled by hours-long power cuts, and to make matters worse, the country as a whole was suffering through the blockade imposed by India. A few months into the blockade, Sakya had had it with trying to secure the diesel needed to run Marco Polo's generator; so he turned to Bijendra MS Basnyat and Raj Kumar Thapa for help. Basnyat, an IT professional with an abiding interest in solar power, is Sakya's business partner at DCash (an online payment network), and Thapa, an electric engineer, is the founder of Solar Solutions. Following the two professionals' advice, Sakya installed 16 solar panels on his hotel's roof, attached it to a big inverter mounted at the hotel's basement, and hit the switch. The 10 KW setup has since been the main power source providing the juice that runs Marco Polo.

The solar installation has performed so well, that today, Sakya, who used to be a solar skeptic, has now turned into a solar-power proponent--and solar entrepreneur. Together with Thapa and Basnyat he went on to found FirstSolar Developers, which seeks to create solar farms, whose electricity will be fed to local grids. The company's first project--Bhrikuti Grid Tied Solar Project--will be set up in Kapilvastu, and generate 9.7 MW; the trio have such faith in their brainchild that they entered their idea in Solar Shark Tank (in the Netherlands), where they have been shortlisted among the three finalists. Next week, they will fly to Amsterdam to pitch their idea to the Solar Shark Tank jury panel and attempt to take home the USD 100,000 grant prize awarded to the winners.

Solar Shark Tank is a competition organised by Access Power, a Dubai-based power developer, in partnership with FMO, a Dutch development bank, to develop solar projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The competition is part of the Making Solar Bankable conference, which aims to promote solar power projects in emerging markets. The FirstSolar team are pretty upbeat about their chances at the competition because they believe their project will prove to be of immense benefit to the region that it will be set up in--meaning, the project represents a very viable solution for meeting a sore market need, for the following reasons.

For one, solar-farm projects such as Bhrikuti Grid will help Nepal diversify its energy sources. As of now, the country overwhelmingly depends on hydropower for all of its electricity needs. But being too dependent on
one source of energy could pose problems for the country in the long
run. For example, in the last two years alone, the 45 MW Bhote Koshi run-off-the-river hydropower project has been hit three times by natural disasters (two floods and the 2015 earthquakes), which rendered it inoperable.

The Bhote Koshi situation may not prove to be merely an outlier. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has identified 22 glacial lakes--12 on the Nepali side of the Himalayas and 10 on the Tibetan side--that could burst and potentially lead to rivers flooding. And a World Bank report published by the Nepal Hydropower Association (NHA) after the 2015 earthquakes states that a major Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) could significantly damage many hydropower plants such as the one on the Bhote Koshi. Relying on a single energy source such as hydropower could potentially be devastating for Nepal, and thus solar farms such as the Bhrikuti Grid would help mitigate the problems that arise from the country's depending on a single source of energy.
Two, solar farms should help alleviate Nepal's dependence on India for power (India provides around 35 per cent of our total electricity needs). Power generated thus could, for example, help Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) curtail load-shedding. According to various studies, only last year, Nepal imported 2,175 GWH of electricity from India, which cost Rs 16 billion--this immensely added to Nepal's already enormous trade deficit with India. In order to purchase the electricity, the Central Bank of Nepal had to sell its US dollars (equivalent to about NRs 4.5 billion) to the Reserve Bank of India to pay for its imports in Indian currency.

Three, solar farms such as Bhrikuti Grid can be set up far, far quicker than most hydropower projects (FirstSolar estimate that they can get their plant up and running in between three and six months). The company plans to sell their power to localities in the vicinity of their plant, meaning, the benefits would accrue to locals, without their having to wait for years to tap into the grid. And because solar farms do not depend on rivers--which see depleted water levels in winters--the locals will not see shortfalls in the amount of electricity supply they have become habituated to.  

The fourth point has to do with proper use of land that's currently unproductive, and with giving back to the community. The land that the project is leasing is owned by a government school, Shree Bhadra Higher Secondary School, in Kapilvastu. FirstSolar's grid-tied solar power plant plans to lease this land, which has been left barren and unutilised for the past 15 years; and they'll furthermore pay the salaries of two teachers at the school (which currently has only three teachers). FirstSolar is also coming up with an alternative-energy curriculum for the students, and the company will employ mostly locals to run their plant.
The plan looks solid on paper, but for projects such as FirstSolar's to bear dividends, the government must first sort out their solar-energy policy. A
government proposal that was written up a few years ago has pegged the rates the government buy solar power (to be fed to the national grid) at around Rs 7.30 per KWH. For solar farms to be sustainable, that figure should be slightly lower than Rs 10 per KWH. The price mandated right now was pegged to the prices arrived at for the electricity Nepal buys from India. That price-point, say proponents of solar farms, does not account for the power
losses suffered by electric transmission lines: the buyer covers the losses. Furthermore, the power that's being sourced from India is being generated at plants that the Indian government might be shutting down soon--because of their pollution levels. Solar plants thus make for a cleaner, some would say cheaper, option.  

The FirstSolar team know there is a lot riding on their performance in the Solar Shark Tank finals. Just having arrived at this juncture has already been a validation of sorts for their idea. But winning the USD 100,000 grant would both help them get their solar plant up and running and also encourage other Nepalis to invest in solar plants of their own.