Solar energy is displacing fossil fuels across the globe. But in India, it is helping boost sales of diesel and petrol at filling stations.
As petrol pumps start using solar energy, many of them, especially in the hinterland with ample sunlight, are reclaiming as much as 10 per cent of sales earlier lost due to inadequate and erratic grid power supply. Some of the newer pumps have opted for solar only to avoid the higher cost of grid power.
“Solar is not just about being environment-friendly. It is paying off financially as it helps raise sales as well as bring down the operating cost for petrol pumps,” said AK Sharma, director (finance) at Indian Oil Corp, the nation’s largest fossil fuel retailer, which has about a quarter of its 26,500 pumps using solar energy. Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum have about 9 per cent and 7.5 per cent of their pumps using solar energy, respectively.
Three years ago, Vikas Sharma, the manager of an Indian Oil pump at Bhojpur in Ghaziabad district, would lose up to 10 per cent of his monthly sales as electricity was available for only 8-10 hours daily, not necessarily during business hours. “Not every customer is ready to wait. By the time you get your boys to start the backup generator, the customer would have left. That’s the cost one pays daily for being dependent on grid,” said Sharma, who runs a fuel outlet for rural customers, about 50 km from the Delhi border.
Sometimes the staff at filling stations is too lazy to even start the generator, knowing the cost of running it would be more than the money made from a motorcyclist wanting to fill Rs 20 worth of petrol.
“All these accumulate into a substantial loss of business in a month,” said Sharma, who installed solar panels in early 2015 at his decade-old pump to the meet fuel demand that’s growing with rising rural incomes and roads getting increasingly better.
"This has changed everything for us,” he said, pointing to the silicon sheets shining in the summer sun on top of his sales office at the filling station surrounded on three sides by fields awaiting sowing of the season.
“Earlier, half the time our boys would be busy calling up the grid power supplier’s office to correct faults, or starting the diesel generator or getting some mechanic to repair the generator if it was acting up,” he said. With quality power supply from solar, even the cost of equipment maintenance has fallen.
In about two and a half years, Sharma has more than recouped his investment of Rs 5.5 lakh on solar installation. His electricity bill halved to Rs 7,000 a month and expenses of Rs 15,000 a month on the backup generator disappeared, saving him Rs 22,000 a month. Sharma isn’t going totally off-grid because it would be difficult if he ever wanted to draw power from the grid in future.
On the other hand, dealers like Prabhat Tyagi have never looked at grid as an option. He has relied on solar for all energy needs since 2012, when he started operating a filling station in Ghaziabad.
“The initial cost of connecting to a grid was Rs 2.5-3 lakh then. And for a supply of 6-8 hours a day, I would have had to pay a minimum Rs 5,000 every month. Add to this cost of a diesel generator. Therefore, I chose solar installation, which came for Rs 6 lakh and no operating cost.”