Why India can’t afford to lose the new solar race
It is really time for India to invest quickly into new research areas like the use of solar power in industry and making of an efficient battery. A respected global technology leader may head the initiative. Any breakthrough will give us a stake in the new exciting energy future and a possible windfall dividend in a short time. And help in reducing import dependence.
Sunlight has become the fastest-growing and mature energy source with global investments exceeding two trillion dollars in the past ten years. It now makes the cheapest electricity beating coal, natural gas, and petroleum crude by wide margins.
But current solar technology has a few limitations that restrict its potential to replace fossil fuels. For example, current solar technology cannot generate the high temperatures required for melting steel or making cement. This prevents solar’s industrial use. But there is good news. Multiple solar research startups have reported breakthroughs in generating higher temperatures and other areas. Research in three critical areas has the potential to make solar the dominant energy source in less than a decade.
First, industry application. Existing technology is simple. Lenses and mirrors focus sun rays to produce heat. Much like the way we burn paper using hand lens and sunlight. We call this Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technique. The problem is the best CSP equipment could generate less than 1000°C of temperature – suitable for heating or making electricity but at least 400°C short for any industrial use. Cement or steel making happens in the temperature range of 1400-1600°C. This compels most in this area.
Bill Gates backs the most promising one. It could achieve temperature much above 1600°C in field trials. The firm used computer programmes to align large numbers of mirrors to produce a laser-like sharp light beam, hot enough to melt steel. The startup hopes to generate much higher temperatures than this. It plans to use the heat to produce hydrogen from water at the industrial scale. This will allow the use of solar energy not only for industrial processing but also for transport. Large vehicle like ships, planes, and trucks can use hydrogen as a fuel.
Second, improving energy storage. We need to store the solar energy for later use say at night, on a cloudy day or for meeting peak demand, or in electric vehicles (EVs). We can store electricity made from solar cells as heat or chemical energy. The research focus is on increasing the efficiency of thermal conversion, which is about 40% now.
Battery storage cost is 20 times higher than the thermal energy storage cost but holds the key to EVs. EVs are not clean enough if electricity made from fossil fuels charges the batteries. Limited lithium-cobalt reserves also restrict the widespread adoption of EVs. We may still be many years away from cheaper and more efficient batteries.
Three, improving Solar Photo Voltaic (SPV) cell technology and manufacturing. We can see these on rooftops or in large solar farms. SPVs convert sunlight into electricity through a process called the photovoltaic effect. They are made of silicon wafers. They also contain trace elements like cadmium, tellurium, gallium, indium, selenium etc in small quantities. The problem is trace elements become hazardous at the end of battery life. Research focuses on replacing these with compound materials with a unique crystal structure. One such Perovskite Solar Cell (PSC) has demonstrated good potential for commercial use.
Big efforts are being invested in changing the way solar panels are made. Focus is on printing them in large rolls, much like newspapers. The radically reduced costs will then make SPVs the primary source of heat and power generation and encourage largescale global adoption.
Today, the world is critically dependent on China for SPVs and batteries. Two quick actions of the Chinese government, a $15 billion annual subsidy and a massive domestic solar programme, have attracted substantial investment in solar manufacturing capacities. These have made China the undisputed king of SPVs.
The low prices of Chinese equipment have enabled many countries to make electricity at a low cost. But they have also made local manufacturing mostly unviable. In Europe, many lead equipment manufacturers have shut shop, unable to meet the Chinese scale and price. India has started fabricating SPV cells but imports critical components like wafers, metals, and poly-silicones. The past five-year import bill exceeds $16 billion.
The choice is not simple. Cheap imports make cheap electricity but make you dependent on China. Make imports expensive and pay more for power. What is the way out? Most new research is happening outside of China. For India, participating in new research initiatives would be the right way. India is implementing one of the most audacious solar programmes in the world. At Rs 2.44 per unit, it could generate the world’s lowest solar power tariff. It has also moved into storage-based solar power that costs less than the thermal power.
It is really time for India to invest quickly into new research areas like the use of solar power in industry and making of an efficient battery. A respected global technology leader may head the initiative. Considering India’s advantages, many talented global research teams would be open to collaborations. Any breakthrough will give us a stake in the new exciting energy future and a possible windfall dividend in a short time. And help in reducing import dependence.
Solar 1.0 driven by low-cost solar panels, demonstrated the commercial viability of sunlight. Solar 2.0 will ride on new research, artificial intelligence, and Industry 4.0 led manufacturing. It will target replacing all fossil fuels. We cannot afford to lose on the Solar 2.0 race.
Source- TOI Contributor