Now an impression has been created that solar power could be the panacea for solving all issues related to climate change and energy independence for India. This is far from the truth. Since despite the aggressive international marketing even for India during the next 4-5 decades ‘coal will still be the king’! Today about 60 per cent of India’s power is generated using hydrocarbons.
There is no doubt that India loves the sun god and the country as a whole is bestowed with more than 300 sunny days which makes it a very attractive option to generate electricity. However, there is still a huge catch: the sun is available only for half a day and hence excessive over reliance on solar power can be very hazardous during darkness.
Today the country plans to ramp up its solar power generating capacity to 100,000 MW by 2022, an almost 25-fold increase from 4000 MW of installed capacity in 2015. This means every year India will have to install about 14,000 MW of solar power continuously for the next 7 years if this ambitious 100 gigawatt target has to be achieved. What is the past record of accomplishment, in the last 5 years India put up only about 2000 MW of installed solar power.
Several bottlenecks still need to be overcome in harnessing solar power for generating electricity. Today even the best of the best commercially available solar photo voltaic cells give and efficiency less than 20 per cent which is a relatively poor conversion ratio and it is for this reason that solar cells have to have large surface areas. This when translated means very large tracts of land area would get covered with solar panels if the equivalent of 100,000 MW has to be generated.
The other and bigger bottleneck is the need for storage of generated power. Since solar panels are no good when there is no sunlight like say at night or during the heavy clouds that cover the sky during the monsoons, in these non-sunny hours the generated electricity needs to be stored in batteries, which can then supply power.
Today’s batteries are really very expensive, and life span is relatively short and trying to deploy them on gigawatt capacities is no joke. For solar power to make a big inroad, a huge breakthrough needs to be made in battery technology. There used to be a promise of plastic batteries that kind of fizzled out last century.
Hopefully this new ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition’ announced by Microsoft founder Bill Gates along with 28 super rich investors could spur research and development in making cheap, durable, light weight and long lasting re-chargeable batteries. Until then the reliance on good old Lead Acid batteries will be the mainstay for industrial scale applications.
Assuming that efficiencies of solar cells and batteries are kind of resolved with great investments in research the literally unresolvable issue that solar power is an intermittent source is never going to fade away, available during daylight and off during night this makes it intermittent. There is certain base load of power that is always required whether it is day or night and that will always have to be met with non-renewable energy sources.
This base power is that load which is required to be available 100 percent of the times irrespective of whether the sun is shining or not, the wind is blowing or not. As of today, there are only two reliable sources of meeting the base loads, good old coal and gas both of which give out that climate villain called carbon dioxide and the other gorilla called atomic energy.
If one analyses carefully the details of India’s submissions as part of the Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs) the Indian energy pie envisages a mix of not more than forty percent for renewable energy by 2030. Some experts even suggest that having a huge mix of intermittent renewable energy in the grid could actually lead to its collapse.
When translated this essentially means that bulk of India’s energy will be generated using hydrocarbon and nuclear. A healthy energy mix is pre-requisite for long-term energy independence.
Much is also being made out that a foreign vendor bid to supply solar power at Rs 4.63 a unit for a solar park in Andhra Pradesh by SunEdison Inc. a US-based company. This was part of transparent e-auction asserts the Union energy minister Piyush Goyal which aggressively brought the prices down almost comparable to thermal power.
However, one will have to wait and watch to see if at such low prices these projects really take off and get completed. Sources in the Bureau of Energy Efficiency say enough safeguards have been put in place to ensure defaulters do not go scot-free.
But in the past if one recalls aggressive bidding hiked the prices of 3G spectrum beyond expectation and since then private companies have been having a tough time unrolling the services to the fullest and the omnipresent call drops are symptomatic of that malaise.
On similar lines, there are fears that solar companies who have bid at such aggressively low per unit rates may default when actual solar parks have to come up.
There is no doubt that the climate is changing but to make out that nations as large as India which may have a population of 1.5 billion in a few decades could be run only on solar power seems far-fetched, unless of course breakthrough takes place in battery technology. Here there is no doubt India is not investing enough. A judicious mix of several forms of energy is the ideal solution.