Sharing the way forward
Connected electric grids are not a distant future away, as renewables will soon thrive, creating an inter-connected globe of shared power.
Solar energy does not require government support any longer. Case in point –tariffs hit an all-time low in May when Avaada Power quoted to sell electricity for just Rs 2.44 per unit, at the auction for the Phase III of a solar park in Rajasthan. Not only will it uproot existing notions about how we consume energy, but will also enable the world to become a global solar family.
There is a misconception that the fossil fuel dominated energy sector is reeling under a huge depression because of renewables. There are many factors which have caused this, but renewables are not the cause of this. In fact, renewables piggyback on the conventional energy sector. Since they cannot provide energy 24x7s throughout the year, the 'dirty' grids act as their lifeline. Thus, for renewables to thrive in the future, every country needs to allow non-renewable based energy to continue for some more time.
2027-2037: All vehicles, electric vehicles
Renewables, specifically solar, can pose a threat to the conventional energy sector when they reach affordable storage. But, it will happen only at the local levels, such as rooftops of domestic and industrial, institutional or commercial buildings, over the next decade. They can never fully replace the grid like we are expecting it to, in tandem with what is witnessed in Germany and Australia. For such a scenario to become a reality in countries such as India, it will take anything between 15 to 25 years.
But even before that, we will be hit by oil parity in about 10 to 15 years, sweeping through the automotive industry, for good. The manner in which we commute will become different just like today communication is nothing like what it was two decades ago. Tony Seba, from Stanford details on this in his book, Clean Disruption. Until his voice was heard, others voices were ridiculed or worse, even ignored. A lecturer in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy, Seba predicts that by 2030, all vehicles on the road shall be electric vehicles (EV), by their own merit, in terms of cost, performance, efficiency, maintenance. This is because as the cost of stored solar energy declines, there will be no need to promote EV. They will be cheaper and there will be no need to convince people to opt for green automobiles.
2030-2040: Solar's future
After achieving oil parity, the continuously lowering storage costs will have rippling effects on the grid between 2030- 2040. Harvesting solar energy from roof-tops and storing them will become the new normal because it will be cheaper than the grid. The stored energy will flow back from such installations to the grid to meet the peak demands as well as earn revenue.
However, that too cannot replace the conventional grid, even though conventional power plants will gradually cease to exist. The huge and ever-varying energy demands of all installations and industries, especially in non-peak solar hours, coupled with the inherent nature of varying energy levels of renewables will demand the grid more than ever before.
2050: Death knell for coal
The next avatar of a grid dominated by renewables shall be its gradual and global interconnection across countries and continents. Global demands will be slowly met by instantaneous or incident solar energy (the default case now) coupled with stored solar energy, both of them deployed across the world.
This will begin with the grid integration of neighbouring countries. For instance, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and China will have a common grid. Similarly, southern (or all) European countries will have a common grid with the North African countries. The southern part of North America and the northern part of South America will share a common grid.
This will be followed by grid integration of those countries which are spread longitudinally along the Equator. Hence, when a part of their country is on the dark side, the other countries can route solar energy to them. This will continue until we have a single global grid where nighttime in America will be powered by India and vice-versa. Similarly, Europe and Africa will be powering each other by China and Australia on the other side of the globe. This will ring the death knell for dirty power plants, which is expected to usher in by 2050.
We need conventional or dirty energy to act as scaffolding until this vishwaroopa becomes a reality. Therefore, let us maintain our dirty power plants as scaffolds and keep them healthy, for now. Only then will the entire world will become one global solar family.
(The author is senior research fellow at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The views expressed are strictly personal.)