How Chennai real estate developers are circumventing building codes by placing rooftop solar panels

CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) issued a completion certificate to a Chennai-based construction and real estate firm on the 8th of July, 2021, for its newly-constructed residential building, which is located on Valmiki Street in East Tambaram. The structure has a stilt floor on the first floor and five floors above it, with a total of 15 dwelling units. The building had declared a functional rooftop solar installation, in addition to amenities such as rainwater harvesting structures and fire licences, in order to obtain the completion certificate, which is required for all builders in order to obtain water, sewer, and power connections.



Tamil Nadu's Combined Development and Building Rules 2019 stipulate that one-third of the total terrace area in multi-storeyed buildings should be set aside for the installation of solar photovoltaic panels. It is stated in the rules that "an approximate area of 10 sq m is required to erect a solar panel for the purpose of generating 1 KW of electricity." According to the CMDA's records, no solar panels were found on the roof of the building when it was inspected during the last week of September 2021, two months after the completion certificate was issued.


"The person in charge of the site stated that the solar panels had been sent out for maintenance. "However, why would solar panels that have only recently been installed require maintenance?" asked a representative from the CMDA department, who went on to say that a show-cause notice had been issued in this regard. The official requested that his or her identity not be revealed.



"Some of the panels were damaged during the installation process a few months ago. Following the CMDA inspection, we replaced the old ones about a month ago (around the middle of October)," said the project manager for the construction company.


However, this is not a stand-alone instance of the application. According to the CMDA website, a 5-story commercial building in Dhandayuthapani Nagar, Kotturpuram declared rooftop solar connections while obtaining the completion certificate in October 2020, which will be completed in October 2020. However, when the CMDA team inspected the premises in October 2021, they discovered that no installation had taken place. CMDA officials confirmed that they had issued a spot notice to the company, instructing them to install rooftop solar panels. Efforts to contact the person in charge of the building's construction proved fruitless.


Is this a recurring event?

The two cases cited above are neither exceptional nor rare in terms of their violation of rules governing rooftop solar installations. The vast majority of multi-story buildings in Chennai were found to be in violation of the 2019 rules governing the provision of solar infrastructure.


From February 2019 to September 2020, the CMDA officials inspected 157 buildings out of the total of 770 buildings that were issued completion certificates during that time period." Anshul Mishra, Member Secretary of the CMDA, revealed that 80 buildings did not have rooftop solar at the time of inspection. It should be noted that eight teams from the Central Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), each consisting of a planner and a field officer, inspected the buildings. "The vast majority of them only complied with the rules after show-cause notices were issued to them," Anshul continued.


According to CMDA inspections, data on rooftop solar is available.

Inspections by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) revealed the current state of rooftop solar in Chennai highrise buildings. Laasya Shekhar created the illustration.

"While it is upsetting to learn about the widespread violations of building codes by contractors, it is also critical to recognise the difficulties they are experiencing. At a time when low-cost housing is a reality in Chennai, builders are unable to increase their investment because doing so would raise ownership costs, which would be detrimental to their bottom lines. Installing rooftop solar is straightforward, but obtaining a TNEB connection is a time-consuming process that necessitates bribing government officials, according to a CREDAI member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.



The emergence of a shadow economy

Meanwhile, a thorough examination of the realities on the ground reveals that many multi-storeyed buildings in Chennai choose to hire rooftop solar panels in order to obtain a completion certificate rather than erect permanent structures to generate electricity. This also points to the existence of an unlicensed market network in the city that rents out rooftop solar panels on a short-term basis.


Under the Chief Minister's Solar Rooftop Capital Incentive Scheme in Tamil Nadu, citizens or builders should only use solar rooftop installers who have been approved by the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency, according to the scheme's directives (TEDA). Realtors, on the other hand, have been found to prefer less well-known consultancies that lease out rooftop solar panels.


"The minimum lease period is one month, and we take care of everything – from installing the panels to removing them once the realtors have obtained the completion certificates," explained a representative from a reputable consultancy in Maduravoyal. Additionally, rooftop rental services are provided in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka in addition to Tamil Nadu by the consultancy.


Apparently, there is a significant increase in demand. "We receive between 10 and 30 orders per month, on average," says the owner. "The majority of our customers are from the ECR region of Chennai," the member of staff continued. Rooftop solar panels, which are imported from China, are in high demand in the city, according to him.

These vendors make substantial profits as a result of this arrangement. According to Ashok Kumar, member of the advisory board of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Regulatory Commission, "a vendor can own only 10 KW capacity panels, but can continue to earn returns on the limited investment by installing and uninstalling the same panels on a repetitive basis" (TNERC).


The reason for this, according to Narayanan K, the site in-charge of a real estate firm, is primarily to reduce costs. While it costs Rs 40,000 to rent solar panels with a capacity of 10 KW for a month, it costs Rs 4.4 lakh to install permanent structures in the same area. It will take approximately six years to recoup that amount. In order to quote the lowest possible price to a customer, why would a realtor increase his costs by making expensive investments in rooftop solar?" says the author. Narayanan was called into question.



Aesthetics and utility are two other frequently cited justifications for the violation. "Terrace space is frequently used for recreational amenities in multi-story buildings," says the author. If a large portion of the terrace space is taken up by solar panels, selling an apartment in a multi-story building can be difficult, according to Sneha Priya, who works in the sales department of a construction company.


Getting in the way of the goal

These trends pose a threat to the achievement of the objectives of Tamil Nadu's solar energy policy (2019), which sets an ambitious target of 3,600 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar power by 2023. Citizens Consumer and Civic Action Group published a report in December 2020 stating that "the state's total installed capacity as of December 2020 represents 14 percent of the target" (CAG).


According to a Greenpeace India report titled, Rooftop Revolution: Unleashing Chennai's Rooftop Potential, which was published in April 2018, the city of Chennai has a total rooftop solar potential of 1,380 megawatts. "A significant portion of this, nearly 46 percent, can be attributed to the residential sector. If realised, this could assist the city in reducing its electricity demand by approximately 10%, according to the report.


Flat owners who wish to lodge a complaint against builders for failing to adhere to TN building regulations and failing to provide amenities such as rooftop solar can do so by writing to the CMDA at msoffice.cmda@gmail.com.


It will only be possible to see an increase in rooftop solar adoption if the real estate firms and townships, which play a significant role in the city's residential market, adhere to the TN building regulations. "We are working on a legal mandate that will allow us to impose penalties on those who violate the law," Anshul Mishra stated.


The CMDA's continued due diligence is also essential in order to ensure compliance with the building regulations. As soon as it was reported in September 2021 that the planning authority was inspecting solar installations in buildings, realtors scrambled to hire the panels, confident that once the certificates were issued, the planning authority would not check back.



The way forward is as follows:

A completion certificate is issued only once during the life of the building, according to the CMDA. While the buildings continue to use the services of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), the department should keep track of how much energy is being consumed by the buildings. That could provide a hint as to the existence of non-functional solar structures. "If the roofs are found to be devoid of solar panels, the assistant engineer of the TNEB must inspect the premises and disconnect the power supply," said Ashok Kumar of TNERC. He goes on to say that the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO) should take action against vendors who rent out rooftop solar systems.


Rooftop solar, however, provides benefits to TNEB, according to a CMDA official. As a result, the operation and maintenance of solar panels should be monitored by the electricity department, he adds. Their readings (bi-monthly readings in residential spaces and monthly readings in commercial spaces) can provide insight into the performance of the solar panels that have been installed.


According to D P Yadav, the Energy Secretary of Tamil Nadu, when we reached out to him during the last week of October, he stated, "We will receive a report from TANGEDCO and CMDA to analyse the collective capacity of installed rooftop solar."



Finally, however, the true potential of Tamil Nadu's solar energy policy will only be realised when citizens and apartment owners recognise the significance of renewable energy sources such as solar energy. "Increased investment, which leads to higher home prices, is the reason why builders choose to skirt the law and rent solar panels instead of installing them. If end customers are educated about the economic benefits of rooftop solar, they are more likely to be willing to invest a few lakhs more when purchasing a home than otherwise. After all, they would save a significant amount of money on their electricity bills in the long run," said Ashok Kumar.

 

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