India's desire to obtain self-sufficiency in solar energy needs to be backed with the necessary technology required to achieve it
This article is part of the series Comprehensive Energy Monitor: India and the World
Carbothermal reduction of SiO2, invented in the nineteenth century is overwhelmingly the dominant process for the first stage in the Si industry today.Once solar-grade silicon is produced, the subsequent processing steps involve wafer production, solar cells manufacture and solar module production. A solar PV array consists of one or more electrically connected PV (photovoltaic) modules, each containing many individual solar cells, integrated with balance-of-system (BOS) hardware components, such as combiner boxes, inverters, transformers, racking, wiring, disconnects, and enclosures. A typical Si PV module consists of a glass sheet for mechanical support and protection, laminated encapsulation layers of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) for ultraviolet (UV) and moisture protection; 60 to 96 individual solar cells, a fluoropolymer back sheet for further environmental protection; and an aluminium frame for mounting. PV cells are either wafer-based or thin film. Wafer-based cells are fabricated on semiconducting wafers and can be handled without an additional substrate, although modules are typically covered with glass for mechanical stability and protection. The vast majority of commercial PV module production has been and remains silicon-based, for reasons that are both technical and historical.
Quantitative estimates of the raw material are not made as reserves in most producing countries is abundant in relation to production.Given the complexity in the manufacture of Si, production capacity of silicon is considered a strategic asset in the solar value chain. This is in contrast to fossil fuel sector where resource endowment rather than production capacity is the most important strategic asset. Quantitative estimates of the raw material are not made as reserves in most producing countries is abundant in relation to production. In 2019, China was the leading producer of silicon metal and ferrosilicon (in terms of silicon content) with a production of 4.5 million tonnes (MT) that accounted for over 64 percent of global production of about 7 MT. Though India is among the top 15 producers, its production of 60,000 T (counting only silicon content on ferrosilicon) was less than 1 percent of global production in 2019. In 2018 Bhutan was the second largest source of India’s SiO2 imports.
Solar PV cells and modules must be sourced from domestic manufacturers for central government schemes to promote the use of solar energy such as PM KUSUM (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha Evem Utthan) for replacing electrical agricultural pumps with solar pumps and for subsidised rooftop solar projects.This is not the first time India is trying to establish polysilicon manufacturing capabilities for the semiconductor and solar industries. In 2008 some of the major players announced plans to manufacture polysilicon. The plans did not materialise despite the government’s offer of land and other incentives as the cost of electricity proved to be too high and the quality of supply too low. This time may be different not only because the quality of electricity supply has improved but also the market size for solar panels has increased tenfold. However, self-reliance in the production of wafers, cells and modules may not extend right up to the upstream end of the solar value chain. In 2018, India imported over 72 million tons of SiO2 and over 28 percent was from China. Though sources of SiO2 imports were highly diversified it would not count as secure or self-reliance. The high cost of production of silicon metal is expected to limit entry of new players. The production of silicon metal using arc furnaces is energy intensive, which increases its cost of production. Industrial electricity is not necessarily cheap in India and this matters as a large portion of the total production cost is related to its energy consumption. Further, the cost of producing silicon metal is controlled by the prices of other components such as coal, quartz, oil, natural gas, and electrodes. Quartz mining is concentrated among few players which means India is not likely to be a member of the silicon producing and exporting countries. To ensure overall mineral security and to acquire equity assets, India has plans to set up a joint venture company namely Khanij Bidesh India Ltd. (KABIL) with the participation of three central public sector enterprises namely, National Aluminium Company Ltd. (NALCO), Hindustan Copper Ltd.(HCL) and Mineral Exploration Company Ltd. (MECL). KABIL is expected to carry out identification, acquisition, exploration, development, mining, and processing of strategic minerals overseas for commercial use and meeting country’s requirement of these minerals. India’s experience in acquiring oil and gas equity assets for energy security had only modest success but that experience may enrich India’s quest for mineral security.
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