By Saket S.
JAIPUR, India, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When businessman Narendra Sethi first installed solar panels on the flat roof of his Jaipur home last October, they drew the attention of more than admiring neighbours.
Monkeys - regular visitors to homes and offices in India - climbed to the roof, damaged the panels and carried off the connector cables. Now Sethi's second generation of panels sit on supports raised 8 feet (2.4 metres) high, with their cables encased in shields and covered by plastic sun shade material.
"Mounting solar panels at a height acts as a sun shade, frees up roof area for better use and also keeps them out of reach of maurauding monkeys that hound the country's roofs," Sethi said.
India aims to more than double the amount of solar energy capacity in its national grid by next March, according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.
With just 400 megawatts of grid-connected solar energy today coming from roof-top panels, expanding roof-top capacity would seem a natural focus in a sunny country where many homes have flat roofs.
By 2022, India aims to have 40,000 megawatts of grid-connected roof-top solar power - a huge expansion over today's levels - and is offering 30 percent government subsidies on the panels to make that happen, according to the ministry.
But scaling up solar energy faces some unusual challenges in India, from extreme weather conditions to destructive monkeys - problems that might be dealt with not just through technological fixes but by offering nervous solar-panel buyers insurance policies.
Tanya Batra, a Delhi-based marketing vice president for Sunkalp Energy, one solar equipment provider, says she faces daily queries from potential customers about the resilience of the systems to extreme heat, heavy rains, theft and monkey mischief.
"It's a very common issue that is raised by clients in North India. Monkeys are a menace here. They destroy things, they roam around in groups, everyone is scared of them, they even bully dogs. So, when purchasing something as expensive as solar, it's natural for clients to be worried", she said.
TILT AND SLIDE?
But roof-top panels are becoming much more affordable, with prices dropping dramatically around the globe as their use increases. That, combined with the potential cost savings in electricity bills, is leading more buyers to take their chances.
Technological solutions are also helping. Some Indian solar companies now offer metal ties or sheathing to hold solar panel cables in place to minimise the "monkey menace".
Batra also urges clients to "just tilt the solar panels at a certain angle, (and) the monkeys would eventually slip away."
Monkeys in India are a threat to more than just solar installations. They derailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plans to bring provide wireless internet to Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency, by repeatedly chewing through the fibre-optical cables, according to a report by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.
Animal rights activists argue the problem is not all the monkeys' fault.
"It is not a 'monkey menace' but a human menace invading wildlife by cutting forests at large scale and allowing industries," said Gauri Maulekhi, the secretary of People for Animals.
"Human encroachments in forests are pushing out wild animals like monkeys from their settlements in search of food and shelter," she added.
Officials in India's renewable energy ministry say the ministry is investigating working with insurance providers to provide new coverage for solar panels, in an effort to boost take-up of solar systems.
The insurance would cover threats including natural disasters, extreme weather, theft and monkey damage, the officials said.
"Recommendations are being invited from a group of insurance companies to provide cover for solar installations in the country. In the coming weeks, the group is expected to submit a report to the government," Tarun Kapoor, joint secretary of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Batra said such insurance, if it becomes available, "will certainly attract more buyers and push the solar market."
"But that should be implemented faster as normally government policies take a lot of time to come into effect on the ground," she said.
Last month, the World Bank announced a $625 million loan to the State Bank of India to help solar distribution companies scale up through access to low-interest loans.
The aim is to add at least 400 megawatts of grid-connected rooftop solar capacity, or nearly 80,000 new solar rooftop systems if each produces 5 kilowatts of power, World Bank officials said. (Reporting by Saket S.; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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