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The Environment: India is an Ideal Country for Solar Energy

The Environment: India is an Ideal Country for Solar Energy

Chetan Maini, who developed India's first-ever commercial electric car, the Reva, writes about how to harness the full power of the sun for clean energy.

(Photo: Ajay Thakuri) (Photo: Ajay Thakuri)

Chetan Maini, who developed Indias first-ever commercial electric car

ABOUT: If we want to meet the goal of 24x7 electricity to every citizen in the country, while reducing the pollution and smog enveloping our urban areas, the best solution for the medium term seems to be solar energy. But, while enormous progress has been made on that front, more needs to be done to take full advantage of the power of the sun. Chetan Maini, who developed India's first-ever commercial electric car, the Reva, writes about how to harness the full power of the sun for clean energy.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a new target for India's solar mission - five-fold increase in solar power generation to 100 GW by 2022. This would be equivalent to around 10 per cent of the power mix of the country seven years from now. With this target, India could become one of the largest producers of solar power, globally. This year, India is going to add around 5 MW of solar power. Therefore, the mission is definitely a stretched target, but doable, considering China is adding around 13 GW every year. The ramifications to India will be phenomenal if we achieve the target. It will provide the right platform for sustainable growth for the next 25 years. It will increase our energy security, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, combat climate change, besides creating a new industry and a significant amount of new jobs. This would also position India as a global leader and exporter in solar power solutions.

Today, we import over 80 per cent of oil and 20 per cent of coal to meet our energy needs. This puts significant stress on us, as a nation, which needs to maintain its growth trajectory, while minimising the negative effects of rising global commodity prices. India is targeting GDP growth of 7-8 per cent and, to achieve it, our energy demands are also expected to go up. Therefore, it is imperative to look at clean energy. Further, solar energy not only helps combat climate change, but can also reduce local pollution levels.

(Photo: Vivan Mehra)
Geographically, India is an ideal country for solar energy. We get 300 days of sunshine, our peak power demand is in the evening and not during daytime (driven by cooling requirements), and we have a seasonal peak in the summer. These are also times when solar energy is at its peak.

India has weak electrical grids and distribution losses of 20 % add to the fi nancial burden of operators. Solar power has signifi cant day peaks and seasonal peaks, which require effi cient storage of energy. Therefore, we need to develop an energy-effi cient ecosystem.

But, what's the cost of solar power? The equation has changed dramatically in the last 40 years - from $60 per Watt in the mid 70s to less than a $1 per Watt, today. The end result is that in recent solar power agreements, Andhra Pradesh touched a record low of Rs 4.63 per kilowatt hour (Kwhr) for a 25-year tariff. Even after adding distribution costs, this will be lower than the current cost of commercial power in 12 states. Recent bids for thermal power in Andhra Pradesh were Rs 4.27-4.98/Kwhr, the difference with solar energy being quite marginal. Given the likelihood of coal prices rising over the next 20-30 years and solar costs likely to come down, it makes more sense to be investing in solar.

While our focus remains on solar photovoltaics (PV) tied to the grid or on rooftops, there are several other potential solutions, including distributed solar PV systems that use energy without a local grid. Improvements in sterling engine technologies can also be adapted. One can use solar collectors (a parabolic reflector to concentrate heat) to power a sterling engine that converts thermal energy to mechanical power. This can then be connected to a generator to produce power. With the increase in adoption of LEDs, low voltage electronics and efficient brushless DC motor technology, houses can be powered by using DC directly from solar panels. This can help reduce energy consumption by over 50 per cent. While this may be challenging with the current infrastructure, such new technology solutions can easily be deployed at the 100 smart cities India is planning to set up.

Solar has another huge advantage. It enables us to get renewable energy solutions into the transportation industry, which is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels that results in high pollution levels. India sells around 20 million vehicles a year. The recent National Mission on Electric Mobility launched by the government is targeting five million electric vehicles by 2020. The energy economics for electric vehicles (EVs) are very favourable. Even with the current pricing of solar energy, an electric vehicle cost per kilometer is six times lower than a petrol equivalent. Given the global growth rate of EVs at 75 per cent, the next 15 years will see a significant increase in EVs. To put this in an energy perspective, the five million vehicles will need 3 GW of solar power, or 0.3 per cent of the planned capacity by 2022. In fact, if 200 million electric vehicles hit the road by 2030, (50 per cent of the expected population), solar power required to run them would be 124 GW, or 50 per cent of what is planned by 2030. Considering that the auto industry grows at 8 per cent CAGR for the next 15 years, if we move to EVs powered by solar energy, by 2030 we will be consuming significantly lesser fossil fuels and this would result in lower pollution levels.

The adoption of solar energy, however, is going to have its own challenges. India has weak electrical grids and distribution losses of 20 per cent add to the financial burden of operators. Solar power has significant day peaks and seasonal peaks, which require efficient storage of energy. Therefore, we need to develop an energy-efficient ecosystem. Advance-ments in Li-ion and other battery technologies have significantly reduced costs, size, weight and increased life. For instance, Li-ion batteries' costs are down from over $1,000/Kwhr a few years ago to $200/Kwhr, and is expected to touch $150/Kwhr by 2020. Such storage energy solutions provide us with a huge opportunity.

With advancements in power electronics, communication and energy storage, easy integration of small rooftop solar power installations as well as large-scale solar plants to the grid is possible. If we add electric vehicles to the storage equation this looks even more promising. They could store all the excess solar energy and provide up to 50 GW of power to the grid to balance peak energy requirements. This could significantly reduce peak load requirements and investments in infrastructure.

Today, intermittent power supply is a cause for concern for agriculture. The use of solar energy will not only make power supply more reliable, but also make it more affordable with the use of more efficient DC pumps.

For the first time, we are seeing all the macro factors coming together to enable solar adoption. Cost of solar cells is falling. Technology advancements in storage, power electronics, communication and solar cells will further drive down costs and enable large-scale deployment. Positive long-term government policies driven by energy security and climate change are fostering an ecosystem. Privatisa-tion of the energy market and connecting the entire grid will enable easy integration and deployment. Increased awareness levels are changing the mind-set of consumers as well.

The government can play a huge role in ensuring the success of India's solar dreams. It has already jumpstarted this by setting a clear vision and a framework of policies. The industry will continue to need support till it is fully viable. Therefore, India must make significant investments in R&D for newer technologies. China has overtaken Japan, the US and Europe as the largest producer of solar PVs. India must strive to beat China by not only investing in existing technologies, but also come up with core solar technologies solutions to lower costs and increase performance of solar cells - unique solutions for Indian conditions - storage, advanced power electronics, and the ecosystem as a whole, including setting up of a smart grid to give us a long-term sustainable advantage.

The recent National Mission on Electric Mobility launched by the government is targeting 5 million electric vehicles in India by 2020. If 200 million vehicles went electric by 2030 (50 per cent of the expected population), solar power required would be 124 GW, 50 per cent of what is planned by 2030.

To achieve this, the government's support to augment the investments being made by the industry will be key. Creating a high level of awareness for adaptation of solar power along the lines of Swachh Bharat will also be important to get the country behind this initiative. In addition to making India sustainable in energy, such investments can give us a global competitive advantage to export our technological solutions to other developing countries in the next 10-20 years.

Now, what if we look at the possibility that all our future power needs will be generated from solar? Assum-ing India's requirement of 1,000 GW from solar, this would need a surface area of less than 2 per cent of Rajas-than. If we add the requirement of energy for all vehicles on the road by then (assuming a future with 400 million electric vehicles), this would increase the area to 2.5 per cent of the state. Imagine a clean future that is green and powered by the sun. This does not just need to be a figment of our imagination, it is something that is truly possible in the next 25 years. The baby steps we are taking today in building a solar nation are in the right direction to make the transformation that we need - to have sustainable growth in our nation and leave a better India than what we had inherited. We owe this to our children!