In a recent thought-provoking article, ?Harvest the Sun ? We must urgently focus on solar energy?, Anand Mahindra, a well-known industrialist (The Times of India, 23/8/08), has said that Indians (rather the Indian government) are not ambitious but timid and cautious. He says we like ?technology transfer? rather be technology pioneer. In that article he asked the Government of India to scale-up and commercialise the solar power technology through private-public participation and bemoaned the lukewarm response for the solar energy research which holds promise for the energy crunch.
Solar Thermal Electricity Generation (STEG) technology, he says, is a simple technology that consists of curved mirrors that concentrate sunlight onto a receiver tube to heat a working fluid flowing through it. The remaining part of the plant is very similar to a conventional power plant.
A 50-MW plant would save around 90-120 million kg of greenhouse gas emissions and the energy payback is five months with a useful life of 25 years. This technology provides ?firm? power and allows plants to dispatch power when demanded. It can also work in a hybrid mode enabling solar heat to be backed by co-firing with natural gas or coal. Waste heat from the combined generation of heat and power can be used for industrial applications, district heating and cooling and sea-water desalination. The experts are of the opinion that just 0.3 per cent of India'sland area for solar power could meet all electricity needs of the country.
The big hitch is the cost. It costs between Rs.7.50 and Rs.17 per kWh to generate electricity through STEG while it is just Rs.1.40 for certain coal-based plants. However, diesel power costs Rs.17/kWh without subsidy and we have 20,000 MW of diesel power used as back-up power by industry. The US Department of Energy estimates that the cost of power generation by STEG would come down to Rs.1.50-2.50 /kWh in the next 15 years. USA and Spain are taking the lead in commercialising this technology.
While some countries which receive half the sunlight that India gets are going ahead with research on this technology, India has ?a timid and incremental policy support,? Shri Mahindra observes. The Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources Incentive Scheme provides a maximum incentives of Rs. 10 per kWh to STEG plants provided these plants are in the 1-5 MW range when it is cost-effective in more than 50MW range. ?This is a nice gesture, but it can hardly be said to open the floodgates for speedy development,? he sarcastically comments, and adds, ?We are not ambitious enough?. Yes, indeed! ?Thinking small? has been the bane of India since its socialist days ! We have still to get over it.
India is endowed with abundant sunshine (250-300 days in a year) and a 1,70,000 sq.km desert which is a natural energy generator waiting to be harnessed, says entrepreneur Anand Mahindra, and adds, ?What on earth are we waiting for? The time is ripe for a public-private partnership to help this technology?and India?attain its place under the sun.? And then adds, ?Let'snot revert to our pre-reform avatar, and wait for a beneficent western power to find the solutions, and then go round with a begging bowl for ?technology transfer??.
High price of thermal and nuclear power
We always take the easy way out?buy the technology from other countries or resort to what is called, ?re-engineering?. We do not look at the other way, the hard way ? research and innovation. We do not want to develop our own resources?solar energy and other non-conventional energy sources which are abundantly available in our country. We want to depend on other countries and then complain about the price fixed by various cartels.
Additionally, coal and oil pollute the air and the technology belongs to the 19th century. Nuclear technology is vulnerable to accidents and meltdowns, has problems of disposal of radio-active waste disposal and adds to global warming. This belongs to 20th century. Solar energy is environmentally safe and gives India energy security.
Why not encourage indigenous technology?
We boast about our IITs and IIMs and how graduates from these institutions have brought laurels to India and enriched USA and other countries. A research report by Vivek Wadhwa of the Pratt School of Engineers (USA) who is himself a co-founder of two start-ups, states that Indian immigrants created 450,000 jobs and $52 billion in sales. Immigrant entrepreneurs funded 25 per cent of US engineering and technology companies in the decade 1995-2005 and 26 per cent of this is by Indians.
We have innovators in our villages as well. Anil K.Gupta of the National Innovation Foundation has created a knowledge bank of 75,000 innovations and practices of little-known pioneers living in towns and villages. We have innovators everywhere but their expertise and talents have not been encouraged and used for nation-building.
We have to give scope for the IIT graduates to work on Indian problems and find Indian solutions. We have floods and droughts at the same time in different parts of the country. We have not yet given serious thought to solve this recurring problem. Of course we have many dams and hydro-power projects. But in many parts of India all that we do every year is to provide relief and temporary shelter.
Our problems are big but our human resources are bigger. If we can overcome food-grains shortage with a Green Revolution, send satellites into space and develop nuclear weapons, we can also find solution to energy problem, use the monsoon waters efficiently and find a solution to recurring floods and droughts. It requires a vision and a plan of action. We have to be ambitious and bold. Bold is beautiful too.
(The writer can be contact at B-203, Accord CHS, Dr. Charat Singh Colony, M.V.Road, Andheri (E), Mumbai – 400 093.)