Solar Universe interview: Solar upfront investments a major challenge in India

By Editor


Upfront investments still play a villain in most solar installations — including off-grid — in India, said Shubhaang Gupta, director, Solar Universe, a manufacturer of solar PV systems, in a recent interaction with Greentech Lead.

Solar Universe supplies products such as solar lanterns, home lighting or pico systems, mobile and battery chargers and garden lights to business and consumer segments across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Gupta says, “The biggest challenge that we face in India is the capability of our customers to afford the initial upfront cost of owning a solar lantern for example. Here financing plays a huge role since not a lot of government-supported grants or public banks have come forward to share such an upfront cost.”

Solar Universe has implemented a PAYG program that allows customers to pay a monthly fee for using a solar product that is ultimately transferred to him/her for ownership after the project becomes viable.

Another major challenge in Indian market is the flooding of under-wattage modules that carry no warranties and are priced at less than 40 cents a watt.

Shubhaang Gupta Solar Universe
Shubhaang Gupta Solar Universe

Gupta adds, “We have dealt with numerous importers who bought container loads of solar modules from these wholesale markets assuming they were getting a good bargain whereas they were getting second hand modules in new bodies or 150W modules in 290W module bodies. We sealed this order at 70 cents a watt, so you can imagine how bad the qualities must have been.”

Gupta also emphasizes the need of creating a sense of responsibility among citizens, especially those in the villages, to turn to solar.

He says, “Our villagers have been staying in the dark assuming that someone will either donate a solar lamp or give them the same at a subsidized price.” Noting that no subsidies or free distribution have been sufficient to solve the power crisis in these communities, Gupta said, “We can never create a sense of ownership till we stop donating or giving grants.”

Solar Universe has associated with several governments for rural electrification initiatives. The company is also active in solar irrigation projects. It has tied up with a leading pump manufacturer for designing and supplying solar water-pumping solutions of 1HP and above to partners across the globe. These water-pumping solutions also have water filtration and desalination functions.

Since most of the developing nations face the massive problem of erratic or no power supply at all, the definition for solar is quite different amongst the urban and the rural masses, says Gupta.

For Indian rural masses, for example, solar is a necessity but for our urban masses solar is only an option and hence their product line differs from customer to customer, Gupta said.

Solar Garden Lights, streetlights, inverters and power plants are promoted amongst metropolitan cities whereas solar lanterns/lamps, mobile charging stations, home lighting systems and water pumps are preferred by our customers in un-electrified villages and districts.

Solar Universe’ product line for India, Africa and the Middle East is somewhat the same. Europe, however, mostly imports Solar PV modules, mobile chargers and streetlights from us. Their line of customers ranges from a small farmer who needs a solar lamp to work at night to a big corporate trying to save on diesel bills by going solar for his factory/warehouse.

Gupta narrates an experience that shows how innovations can arise from people who need the support of these technologies the most.

“A while back I received a mail from a man in a village in Tanzania. He expressed his concern about lack of electricity for the most basic needs. As ironical as it is, while there are people in the villages there like in our own country that can afford and own mobile phones, they still don’t have the means to charge them. He shared how in his village people walk once in two days up to 10 kms to charge their phones and he would like to eliminate that by being able to create a unit powered by the sun that would allow up to 15 phones to be charged at one point. This said unit could if possible also provide the basic lighting lights for his workspace. With this he would not only solve the problem of his fellow villagers but could also make a small income by charging a minimum amount for each phone charged. It left an impression on me.  I realized that ideas and innovation often come from places where it is needed the most.

Our first batch of what we call “on the go pro” mobile charging stations was shipped out in July 2014. Prototypes are now being tested in villages across India through our on-ground partners in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.”

“We were also one of the very first solar system manufacturers in India to switch to Li-Ion batteries for Lanterns and Home Lighting Systems that traditionally relied on Lead-Acid batteries,” Gupta said.

In association with its Irish partner, Solaris, Solar Universe is now launching sustainable computer labs of 5 seats and above, that consume 1/10th the power of conventional computer labs and can even run on solar energy. “Imagine running a 5-seat computer lab for 8 hours on a single 75ah battery powered by a window size 100W solar panel.”

Over the past three years, Solar Universe has achieved tremendous growth. The YoY growth for Solar Universe India and its parent company has been more than 15 percent for the current fiscal.

“From exporting to a single partner in late 2012, we now export to more than 18 countries across continents,” Gupta said.

Solar Universe is also leveraging e-commerce platforms to reach out to its customers. The company’s revenues from e-commerce alone have touched Rs 1.9 million since its first listing in August 2013, Gupta said.

The company is now exploring the possibility of opening a manufacturing unit each in East & West Africa.

According to Gupta the off grid market in India has grown manifold over the past few years. A market that was earlier dominated by imports from China has now seen up to 90 percent indigenization.

“We have finally reached a stage wherein India is no longer imitating but innovating. Such is the case with Solar Study/Task Lamps. A technology that was developed in India (even the plastic mold) is now being imitated by the Chinese and exported worldwide. Although you always have players, who turn to cheaper imports just to make a quick buck, but that shouldn’t stay around for long,” he added.

“As pointed out earlier, upfront costs and substandard copies pose a huge threat to the growing market however awareness and education about quality standards will go a long way in getting rid of this problem,” Gupta continued.

Having said that, a market that revolved mostly around smaller DC kits with 2x LED bulbs and a mobile charger has now moved onto bigger DC kits that can even power ceiling fans, LED tube lights and provide AC output for running TVs or computers.

Solar Universe has come out with its first batch of tabletop DC home lighting kits that can hold batteries of up to 150ah. This eliminates the possibility of customers tampering with the battery, connecting excessive loads or trying to draw AC current that ultimately damages the entire product in the long run.

Gupta says that with greater transparency, increased use of social media, consumer forums, grading and testing agencies such as Lighting Asia and TERI to name a few, the market for Solar Off Grid will only grow from here and become customer oriented.

“This is much needed since we are dealing with people at the bottom of the pyramid for whom solar is not an option but a necessity,” he concluded.

Rajani Baburajan

[email protected]

Latest News