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Saving energy: New-age sun worshippers

By Sapna Dogra Singh in New Delhi
December 26, 2007 11:16 IST
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When Internet search major Google Inc decided to power its 'Googleplex' in Mountain View with one of the largest solar panel installations in the world last year, it was a big vote for solar energy, which presently provides less than 1 per cent of the energy generated worldwide.

Though the capital expenditure required for solar energy - estimated at Rs 24 crore (Rs 240 million) per megawatt (MW) - is almost six times higher than that for conventional sources of energy, there is no fuel cost. Sunlight is free.

Google, therefore, managed to slash its electricity bill by a third and also earn brownie points from the green activists. The solar power installation at Google's head office can produce up to 1.6 MW electricity, enough to power around 1,000 Californian homes.

If the US companies can do it, there is a strong case for India to opt for it, given that it's one of the most sun-rich countries in the world.

"Of course it will happen in India within a couple of years because the cost of solar photovoltaic technology is coming down and big corporate firms are showing interest in this form of renewable energy," says Akanksha Chaurey, associate director, Centre for Distributed Generation at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Incidentally, the annual solar energy received on every square mile is approximately equivalent to 4 million barrels of oil. To capture that efficiently enough to make it commercially viable, however, requires technologies that do not exist today.

Recently, companies like Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries and Moser Baer Photo Voltaic (MBPV) announced their plans to set up 10 MW and 15 MW solar plants respectively.

While Reliance Industries has decided to set up a 10-MW solar plant in Maharashtra , MBPV has signed a pact with Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation to set up a 15-MW solar power plant in Rajasthan.

"This is an encouraging news in a country where there's not even a single solar plant of 1 MW," said Chaurey.

The government is also in the process of making policies to give incentives to grid-connected large power plants based on solar energy.

"Electricity generation from solar energy is prohibitively expensive and so it is not viable for utilities. It is imperative that prices come down," says a senior official of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).

Agreed an official of Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Ltd (IREDA), and said that a technological breakthrough is required to bring the cost down.

Incidentally, the cost per megawatt in case of solar power comes around to Rs 24 crore (Rs 240 million) while in case of wind power it is Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) and Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million) in case of thermal power.

Also, the per unit cost of generation is also high at Rs 15 in case of solar power plant as compared to Rs 3 per unit in conventional electricity consumption. "Who would pay such a high cost?" asks the IREDA official. Since it is very expensive to generate power from solar energy, the government prefers to invest money in other conventional and non-conventional sources like wind, biomass and coal, adds the IREDA official.

However, Chaurey is optimistic as she says it is a question of time as more and more companies would realise the importance of green power on the economies of scale would come into play and cost would surely come down.

But there are limitations to solar power too. Strong sun light would be available for not more than five hours a day, which is why it is best suited for distributed generation where the power is fed to the load dispatch centres.

Currently, around 7.7 per cent of the country's total energy generation comes from renewable sources, mostly from wind energy, biomass projects and mini hydel projects.

The country has an installed renewable generation capacity of 10,622.45 MW and the Centre is targeting the addition of another 14,000 MW of renewable energy capacity during the Eleventh Five-Year Plan.

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Sapna Dogra Singh in New Delhi
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