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[NEW DELHI] A network of 'solar valleys', generating the know-how to realise India's solar energy ambitions, has been mooted by its prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

India's solar energy mission, launched this week (11 January), is one of its eight core national missions under a national action plan on climate change (see 'Doubts raised over India's plans for solar power'). The country aims to generate 20,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity from the sun by 2020.

"If the ambitious mission is to become a living reality, we will have to create many 'solar valleys' on the lines of the silicon valleys that are spurring our information technology industry across the four corners of our country," said Singh.

"These valleys will become hubs for solar science, solar engineering and solar research, fabrication and manufacturing."

Singh said technological innovation is the key to the mission's success.

"We will need to find ways of reducing the space intensity of current solar applications including through the use of nanotechnology. Cost-effective and convenient storage of solar energy beyond daylight hours will be critical to its emergence as a mainstream source of power. In the meantime, we may need to explore hybrid solutions, combining solar power generation with gas, biomass or even coal-based power."

Yet several obstacles were pointed out at a meeting of academic and industry experts in solar technologies, organised to coincide with the mission's launch.

The country has so far only set up pilot plants of one- or two-MW capacity, said Rajiv Arora, chief executive officer of Moser Baer Photovoltaic's office in India. Various projects in the pipeline could, at best, yield only 20–30 MW by 2013, he said.

Yet India's goal for the first of its three-phase solar energy plan is to achieve 1,100 MW of solar power supplied largely through the national grid; seven million square metres of solar collectors and 200 MW of off-grid solar applications, by 2013.

In addition, India lacks sufficient stock of the basic raw material — crystalline silicon — and must import it if this massive scale-up is to work.

India must also train an estimated 100,000 scientists, engineers and technicians in solar energy by 2022. "The biggest challenge is trained photovoltaic installers, in operation and maintenance," said Arora. There is also a need to set up more testing and validation labs.

Ingenious solar appliances that serve rural India's needs — for example, rural cash machines — will also be needed.

India's minister for new and renewable energy resources Farooq Abdullah said the country will also support research into reducing raw material consumption and improving energy efficiency. A long-term policy of subsidies and pricing of solar power will also be put in place.