Business Today

The role of technology

Girish S. Paranjpe        Print Edition: August 7, 2011

Earlier this week, during a meeting with a top industrialist in India, I listened to his frustration at not being able to bring fresh power generation capacity on stream despite having everything lined up. His project had guaranteed access to coal, all the power generation equipment and a fully concluded Power Purchase Agreement with the national grid.

While I could empathise with him, there are probably very few countries today which do not go through an elaborate process before permitting large fossil fuel-based power plants to go on-stream.

Girish S. Paranjpe, Managing Director, Bloom Energy International
There is no getting away from the fact that solar will be an intermittent source: Girish S. Paranjpe
The slow and uncertain regulatory process is just one of the issues. The sheer shortage of fossil fuel feedstock (like coal) at affordable prices and the known issues around transmission and distribution losses make the traditional model for power generation and distribution inadequate for India's burgeoning power needs.

While most of India is powered through thermal energy, the country recently made a bold commitment to solar power based on a comprehensive policy framework. But the results are contingent on breakthroughs in technology and availability of cost-competitive products, both around generation and storage. The Central Electricity Authority expects an average deficit in power availability of 10.3 to 12.9 per cent during 2011/12. Many actual users will experience a much higher deficit.

Given this environment, there is a need to explore the application of breakthrough technologies and innovative business models across the four elements of the power value chain: demand management, transmission and distribution, generation and feedstock innovation.

Sitting in the front row of a symposium at Sao Paulo, Brazil, hosted by the local Ethanol Association, I was fascinated by the range and richness of innovative technologies being developed to leverage Brazil's staple commercial product, sugarcane, to solve the world's energy problem. Amyris, a company headquartered in the US, but with manufacturing and research facilities in Usina in Brazil, has pioneered the use of special yeast to bioengineer renewable fuels like biodiesel and jet fuel from sugarcane. Another company is working to convert ordinary sugar into petrol using a catalyst. Further up-stream were technologies to boost the production of sugarcane through high-yield seeds. We need similar research in India.

This year, two of the four winners of the prestigious Ashden Award of Sustainable Energy for 2011 are from India. One of them, Husk Power, has innovated in local generation and distribution of electricity. The company uses rice husk, which is considered agro waste, to generate power locally and then distribute it to nearby villages through a local grid in Bihar. What is most impressive is that it delivers this electricity at less than Rs 90 per month to each household, reliably and cleanly.

Given India's high solar intensity, with annual solar yield of 1,700 to 1,900 kilowatt hours per kilowatt peak of installed capacity, the government has rightly embraced solar as the renewable energy of choice. However, there is no getting away from the fact that solar will be an intermittent source. We need to find another energy source to pair up with solar to provide continuous power to users. With the development of a local distribution grid for natural gas, it is time to explore ways to generate base load power using natural gas in a distributed fashion. If we can find an imaginative way to combine intermittent but renewable solar power, with clean gas-based locally-generated electricity and use thermal-grid-based power only for load balancing, we could develop an ideal solution for the power needs of our country.

The writer is Managing Director, Bloom Energy International. The views are personal

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