India’s ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has exempted the solar PV farms coming up in the country from having to seek environment clearance.

India is in the midst of a massive program to increase its grid-connected solar power generation capacity from around 20 million watts at the end of the 2010 to 20,000 million watts by 2020.

The addition is expected to comprise of photo voltaic (PV) farms — the typical solar installation — and other technologies like thermal or steam and turbine based solar farms.

The government is in the process of entering into power purchase agreements for around 600 million watts (MW) of solar farms as the first part of the massive program — known as the Solar Mission. Another phase, of 350 MW of PV, is expected to be announced this month.

Both parts — together coming to 500 MW of photo voltaic (PV) and an equal amount of thermal projects — are to be completed and ready for power generation by March 2013.

The second phase, to be started after the phase 1 projects start generating power by early 2013, will involve setting up 3000 MW by 2017 and another 16000 MW of new capacity by 2022. All the projects included in the scheme get a guaranteed purchase price of around Rs 17 (40 cents) per power unit produced.

The exemption from seeking environmental nod and creating environment impact reports etc.. is likely to keep the Solar Mission on schedule. Green nods can taken anywhere from 2 months to a year. The clarification by the environment ministry, headed by Jairam Ramesh, was done after a query was raised by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

Most of the new solar farms — both PV and thermal — are being set up by small firms — primarily land developers and are concentrated around India’s Thar desert. It is estimated that a fraction of the Thar desert, covered by solar panels, may be enough to meet India’s power needs.

Under the current scheme, the maximum size of the plant to be included in the program is only 5 MW — to ensure the broadest participation from the industry.

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