THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
By MV Kamath
Following the controversy over the Kudankulam nuclear plant and the mess it has needlessly created, thoughts flow towards prospects of using alternative sources of energies. In the past it has been India’s compulsion to import oil, gas and coal for its energy requirements and roughly they cost over $100 billion a year of which imports of coal alone cost $ five billion. This it is claimed, may rise to $ 45 billion by 2020, no small amount for a fast growing economy. Surely, there are alternate sources of energy that India can tap? It is not India alone that is facing this problem.
Practically all industrial nations face the same predicament. Indeed, the use of wind power all over the world is growing at the rate of 30 per cent annually with a world-wide installed capacity of 198 Gigawatts (GW) in 2010. In India, the development of wind power began in 1990 and it has significantly increased in the last few years. It may come as a surprise to many, but although a relative newcomer to the wind industry in comparison with some European countries and the United States, India now has the fifth largest installed wind power capacity in the world!
Indeed, in 2009-2010, India’s growth rate was highest among the other top four countries. Within India itself, Tamil Nadu tops highest in most wind generating capacity of 6007 MW (megawatts), Maharashtra with 2310.70 MW capacity coming second, Gujarat, third (2175 MW, Karnataka fourth (1730.10 MW) and Rajasthan fifth(1524.70 MW). According to experts, on the basis of current growth trends, India should achieve 99 per cent of its technical wind- energy potential by 2030. But two points need to be remembered here. One is, electricity generated by wind power is still more expensive than power obtained from conventional power plants. The other is the seasonal and diurnal variations of wind force. Situating wind plants at appropriate places is in itself a factor needing consideration. One has to be fairly sure that wind flow is sufficiently strong and also round-the-clock for making a power plant viable. The other problem is availability of land. The task of objectively assessing these issues has been allotted by the government to too many agencies like the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES).
In Karnataka, there are surprisingly many small wind farms, making it one of the states which has a high number of windmill farms. Chitradurga alone reportedly has over 20,000 wind turbines. Active in Karnataka is a government enterprise known as Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd., the object of which is to promote projects for harnessing energy needs from wind, small-hydro, biomass and the sun (solar), not to mention wastes from which energy can be recovered! The vision is admirable but progress seems halting. Interestingly, solar thermal power does not seem to have made much headway. For one thing, like wind power, solar power needs a lot of land, if one wants to go in for a commercially viable project.
According to one estimate, even a pilot project of 100 MW may require any thing between 600 to 1000 acres of land and a commercially planned project for production of 1,000 MW would need ten times that number of acres! Just the three MW plant inaugurated in Yelesandra, Kolar is spread over 15 acres. Where is one to get that much land – and at what cost? The Yelesandra project cost Rs 59 crores according to KPCL officials. In the circumstances, production of energy from solar source seems practically unviable. Yet, the National Solar Mission (NSM) has set a target of 20,000 MW of solar electricity by 2020! According to one estimate, on a nano-basis (using roof-top photo-voltaic panels and other application), solar power can yet be acquired but could cost between Rs nine and Rs 10 per unit. One understands that as many as 150 companies in India have evinced interest in developing large solar photo-voltaic projects of up to 20 MW including Tatas, Reliance, Lanco and Moser Baer.
The Mahindra Group, it is reported, is set to commission a five MW solar power plant in Gujarat by December 2011 and apparently it has committed itself to set up a total of 75MW power generation, plants in the entire country within two years. With so many companies now interested in solar projects, the market for investment in it has a potential of $ 110 billion. The National Solar Mission has already created a $ 19 billion industry. What is significant is that expansion of the solar power sector alone has the capacity to replace upto 30 per cent of imported coal in the next decade. It is also well to remember that one MW of solar power is enough to meet the needs of about 200 homes or about 1,000 people. The Yelesandra solar plant is expected to light up 20 villages.
Innovation is the name of the game and Indian scientists seem to have caught on to solar lighting. Indeed, an Indian scientist, Harish Hande, a Kharagpur IIT graduate with a doctorate from Massachusette University won the coveted Ramon Magsaysay Award 2011 for his pioneering efforts to provide solar based lighting solutions to rural India. Hande set up a Solar Electric Light Company in 1995 with the sole desire to electrify rural India using innovative solar power technologies. It is claimed that in the last few years the programme has caught on and now more than 125,000 households in the states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Kerala have benefitted by it. Selco makes solar lamps available at about Rs 1500 each and reportedly these are bought by organisations like the Rotary Club of Bangalore to be donated to schools for the use of students. Students from homes without electricity are given a fully-charged lantern for use at night. The idea is reportedly catching up with support from the likes of the IIT-Kharagpur Alumni Association. Surely, the same idea can be replicated all across the country to provide an incentive to poor students to continue their studies even in the midst of grinding poverty? For all, one knows solar batteries may soon come into use to run motor bikes, if not cars. Research, apparently, is well on its way.