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Sun should run the earth!

India must exploit its potential to become a solar giant

Sun should run the earth!

As we were scurrying across to escape the relentless scorching sun into the cool comforts of the exhibition halls at Greater Noida Exposition Centre, Ms Helena Li was looking around rather wistfully. It was so much of wasted opportunity.

She meant the sunshine. Helena Li is the president of Trina Solar of China, the world's largest solar power generating photovoltaic panels manufacturer. Flitting across forty countries on five continents, she found time to personally come and attend the solar power companies' humongous exhibition held in the Greater Noida facility last week.

India has one of the world's greatest potentials to emerge as a solar power giant. Given the abundant sun, the country gets in a year, estimating the power that can be generated here is anybody's guess. It is only a matter of time that the conventional electricity supply mode would become outdated and power from the sun would be aplenty.

It seems as if she is suggesting how "one day the Sun would run the Earth". At least research and development activities in solar power generation are taking us towards that direction. It is a wrong idea that you need vast tracts of land to place solar power PV panels. Maybe, like the chips of computers, the PV panels will pack in more and more generation capacity in smaller surfaces.

In a way, a microcosm of this future is already on the ground or rather in the sea. Helena Li said that Trina Solar has executed such systems in seven independent islands of the Maldives. These islands are spread too far from each other, and from the main island. So building an electricity grid to carry power from one large station was not feasible. But setting up small solar units was. The islands are now being run on solar power.

Another kind of vertical integration is taking shape. In specific industries such as poultry in Australia, captive solar power sets are being used for providing a continuous stable temperature in chicken coops. In cases of commercial fisheries, solar panels are being utilised to generate electricity for running oxygenation plant for 24x7 oxygenating of the fish ponds resulting in a good output. In agriculture farms in China, solar power is taking care of the energy needs of the farming operations, which until now used to be from diesel gen-sets.

Coming to diesel or fuel oils, the countries which are present-day repositories of the oil assets are now converting to solar power. Dubai, for one, is adding 100 GW solar power generation capacity each year. Jordan is one of the biggest players in this game. Oman and Kuwait are hastily adding as much solar power as they can in a year. And Saudi Arabia, accounting for the world's largest oil reserves, is hastily laying out the blueprint for alternative power generation scenario when oil resources will be exhausted.

In fact, the driving force for the rush to solar power in the whole of Middle East is the realisation that oil resources would be finished in another three to four decades.

China is the recognised super-power in this respect. It has the largest installed solar power capacity in the world, its annual addition to installing solar capacity is equally massive and its domination overproduction of solar PV panels and other accessories and services is enviable. It has led the research and development activities in this field and developed a virtual stranglehold over the global market.

But for now, there is another critical development which can be the game-changer in the foreseeable future. Rooftop solar power generation sets could generate enough electricity to take care of the needs of a home as well as leave enough surplus to be supplied into power grids. The power requirements of the evening hours could be saved into storage batteries, which is another area of research. The enticement is that the cost of solar power could be a fraction of conventional electricity from the large grids. Helena Li says that the average cost for solar power should be as low as 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The thumb-rule is that at the present price for rooftop generation sets, the payback period should be around five years. Thereafter, power cost would be close to nil.

Batteries are undergoing a kind of silent revolution. They are set to become so much more versatile. Power can be stored in smaller sizes and that too for much longer. Batteries would make taking power in the peak load periods from the electricity grids optional. And that would change the way we buy power for our homes.

"Power should become a commodity, bought and sold on trading platforms" feels Li. Because power produced through the rooftop sets has the potential to be so much in surplus that households would use their generated power and sell the excess to the grids. Already some small beginning has been made towards such a system through "net metering".

"Your home meter should move both ways. It will meter when you are drawing power from the grid supply. It will move the other way when the surplus from your rooftop generation flows into the grid. Then your bills for electricity would be the net draw from the grid", said Kushagra Nandan of Sunsource Energy, a company which is installing rooftop and ground-based systems in India. The company has been floated by two friends who met professionally while working in the United States and decided to embark upon spreading solar energy generation back home.

As we were talking to Li, news came from India having slapped safeguard duties on imports of solar panels from China. Would that affect Trina Solar in its business in India? Li revealed that as one of the largest operators in the industry, the company has already taken steps to meet such exigencies. She said her company is producing units in Vietnam and Thailand, among others. Indian market could be serviced from these alternative production facilities.

Why not produce solar panels in India? "We will certainly produce in India provided we can develop the supply chain here. We have an extensive network of suppliers in components and parts, and without having that we cannot produce. We are a commercial organisation and would go wherever there is business" Li reassures. "Solar should benefit mankind. It should be in harmony, not hurt. That's our mission statement," she observed, in conformity with Chinese wisdom and Chinese character.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Anjan Roy

Anjan Roy

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