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Latha Jishnu: Casting the sun in the shade

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Unlike the rest of the world, India has yet to wake up to solar energy's potential.

Amazing things have been happening with the sun. Across continents, its energy is being harnessed — and stored — in innovative ways as researchers come up with competing technologies to make solar power more cost-effective and efficient. Simultaneously, governments in Spain, Germany, the US and China, to name a few, are offering generous subsidies for solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and to cut greenhouse emissions. This, in turn, has sparked the biggest investment rush so far into this sector, an indication that solar could finally be entering the mainstream.

Unlike with nuclear power, where hype has not been matched by investment, solar is drawing huge funds. In the US alone, venture capital and private-equity firms put in a cool $3.2 billion in 2007.

Take the most recent of discoveries first. From Australian National University (ANU), which has a department dedicated to developing sustainable energy systems, comes a technology that stops moving shadows from ‘cannibalising’ solar cells and eating into generated energy. Improved shadow tolerance has been one of the Holy Grails of international solar research and is just the breakthrough that the global solar market is seeking because it has the potential to cut the cost of solar power by half. China, ever on the lookout for ways to bolster its already awesome renewable energy programme has been quick to enter into an alliance with ANU.

(China, incidentally, is the world leader in the manufacture of solar photovoltaic technology, its six largest companies having a combined value of over $15bn.).

From the US has come the revolutionary news that researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine. MIT professors have discovered a cheap and simple process for storing solar energy using abundantly available non-toxic natural materials. “This is the nirvana we’ve been talking about for years,” says Daniel Nocera, professor of energy at MIT who has developed a simple method that paves the way for large-scale use of the sun’s energy.

There are two ways to do this. The sun’s energy can be harnessed through photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity or by the more conventional method of concentrating its rays onto an array of mirrors to boil water and using the resulting steam to drive a turbine. The latter, known as concentrated solar power (CSP), is finally coming into its own with projects springing up across the globe: Nevada, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, etc. By refining existing technologies and using the new, entrepreneurs are bringing about greater efficiency and markedly lowering costs.

Compared to fossil fuels, the sun is an expensive proposition but the economics of solar power are changing rather dramatically. In Europe, CSP energy costs around ¤ 0.15 per kWh (or one unit), compared with around ¤ 0.07/kWh for natural gas and ¤ 0.06/kWh for coal. In the US, costs have dipped sharply to between 11 and 15 cents per unit against 6 for coal.

Where is India in this solar frisson? Nowhere, is the dismaying answer. The global excitement has bypassed it almost completely even if a handful of companies, such as Moser Baer, are now making large-scale investments in photovoltaic panels. That, however, is to meet the growing demand in Europe where subsidies have opened up attractive markets.

What is missing here is a larger vision of what renewable sources, specially solar, can do to fill the energy gap in the country. The process of putting together a critical mass of researchers, industry and champions in government which ought to have started at least 50 years is still not underway. As a ritual, the government makes the right noises about renewable energy but does precious little to promote it, the only noticeable change being the alteration in the name of the ministry dealing with this issue. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), as it is now known, remains an ill-favoured and poorly-funded area of darkness.

IIT-Bombay will be setting up a demonstration solar thermal power plant in collaboration with industry that will also act as a testing facility. It is intended to be a high-visibility, national impact research programme. But IIT-B needs Rs 50 crore for the project and there is no indication yet where the funds will come for this fledgling initiative. The government has been making noises about setting up a solar commission (no less) on the lines of the Atomic Energy Commission that will be an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology and will be responsible for deploying commercial and near-commercial solar technologies. The initial investment that was being talked of was $10 million.

More recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that a solar mission (not commission), would be set up as part of an eight-pronged National Action Plan on Climate Change. The solar mission has a limited target of adding 1,000 mw of CSP in the next 10 years but no clear timelines or funding have been mentioned. Yet, many consider even the 1,000 mw target too ambitious. That’s simply because in the past six decades practically nothing has done to build capacity — either in collaborative research or in creating the manpower. That’s why the Solar Energy Centre of the MNRE, shockingly, has been returning most of the funds allocated to it year after year.

India’s solar programme has thus been limited to providing intermittent energy to the rural areas (to around 6,000 villages), for street lighting (about 50,000 systems) and water heaters — all adding up to around 1,400 mw. One reason is that despite subsidies, costs are seen as rather daunting. MNRE calculates the capital cost of setting up a solar power plant between Rs16 crore and Rs 20 crore per mw which, on the face of it, is rather steep compared to conventional thermal stations. Coal-fired plants cost Rs 4-4.5 crore per mw and gas-based slightly more. Nuclear plants can go as high as Rs 7crore per mw and is expected to be as high as Rs 15 crore per mw for the newer technology.

If one were to look at the funds pumped into nuclear and solar over the past half century, then solar comes out shining from the analysis. Nuclear despite huge upfront funding and hidden subsidies has produced no more than 4,120 mw in 50 years. MNRE officials, therefore, claim that in a cost-benefit analysis solar has not done too badly.

Budgetary Support for Nuclear Energy and Solar Power (Rs/crore)
DAE* 1,996 2,418 2,682 2,745 2,768 3,351 3,739 4,240 3,752 5,033
Solar power 11.77 46.65 57.25 49.45 78.45 86.15 75.1 73.75 60.52 68.41
*Department of Atomic Energy. Its budgets, of course, underwrite a wider range of activities
Source: Revised budgets for the DAE and solar energy under Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources of the Government of India

But the clinching argument in favour of solar is that its potential is now well established. As Anand Mahindra, vice-chairman & MD of Mahindra & Mahindra put it after the solar mission was announced, “Let’s not revert to our old pre-reform avatar, and wait for a beneficent western power to find the solutions, and then go around with a begging bowl for ‘technology transfers’. As we try to address global issues of climate change, energy security and snowballing oil prices, a commercially viable technology that is clean, scalable and utility-friendly is staring us in the face. What on earth are we waiting for?”

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First Published: Sat, October 11 2008. 00:00 IST