Our Research Geared to Bridge Efficiency Gap

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Solar has been widely acknowledged as the energy source which on its own can bridge the massive gap in India’s power demand and supply. Technological advancement has played a major role in bringing the cost of production down significantly over last few years. National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE) has been working on improving solar power prospect in the country through tech advancement. Governance Today spoke to Dr. Praveen Saxena, Director General of NISE to elicit his opinion on the various issues related to Solar Energy. Edited excerpts:
Praveen-Saxena
Dr. Praveen Saxena, DG, National Institute of Solar Energy

What is your assessment of the solar energy in India?

India has an installed capacity of 2,53,000 MW. Of this, renewable has the capacity of 32,000 MW, which is about 12 per cent of the total  capacity. We generate about 16.7 per cent from hydro and 12.8 per cent from other renewables. Nuclear contributes just about 1.2 per cent. Renewable is already in a position such that we are the second largest source of power generation in the country. Within renewables, wind contributes 67 per cent, or 22,000 MW with about 4,000 MW coming from small hydro, 4,000 MW from biomass and about 2,800 MW from solar. We are not yet there on solar essentially because we started in 2010. However, in just 3 to 4 years we have achieved 2,800 MW of solar, which is significant.

What is the kind of innovation the country needs in solar sector and how do you match up to it?

Today the technology in solar segment in the country is in a position that we produce 16 -17 per cent efficient solar cell modules. Internationally, the modules are 19-20 per cent. We are lagging by about 3 per cent in efficiency of solar modules. As far as solar cells are concerned, cells are a sub-set of modules. We make 18 per cent solar cells whereas global share is more than 20 per cent. The theoretical limits of achieving are 34 per cent of efficient solar cells. All our R&D efforts are now directed towards this to fill this gap of 3 to 4 per cent and we hope that within 2 years we will catch up with the global mark.

How does the regulatory framework look like in this sector? Does it pose any concern?

The regulatory framework has been conducive to the development of solar sector and has never hindered the technological progress. As a country we have said that all the distribution companies would have to source certain percentage of power from renewables, and we have a specific renewable energy purchase obligation for solar, that is helping us. But then we don’t have any penalties to be imposed, if the obligations are not met with. Now, the ministry is trying to change some of these regulatory aspects so that we can impose penalties.

What drives this sector? Policy or Economy?

I am happy that as a country we are now moving towards renewables as a contribution towards climate change. In fact, in our country, renewable is seen more as energy source rather than climate change option, which means, because we are short of power, and our rural and remote areas are struggling with power shortages, they are finding renewables a good option. Secondly, electricity is becoming expensive. And solar power, whatever we generate, initial capital investment is there. But once the capital investment is made, electricity generation is then free, so the fuel cost is zero. So for entrepreneurs this is a good business option provided he is able to meet the capital cost, which is slightly higher. However, there are some technical issues. One, solar energy is available during the day time. So we need to store it. Two, because solar energy is a diffused form of energy whereas petroleum energy is very concentrated in form, so we cannot generate more than what we receive. But we can theoretically generate so much power that we can meet the entire world requirement. I am sure that the use of solar energy will be prioritized in concepts of smart grid and smart city. I think we are already at a stage where we generate equally solar and wind energy as electricity. It is probably a matter of few more years when solar will be cheaper than the conventional energy.

The segment is incentive driven? How does that help industry?

It is important to bear in mind the rate at which the distribution companies are purchasing electricity. Solar plants become economically viable if
you buy electricity at Rs. 7 a unit. The average in our country should not be more than Rs. 5-5.50 per unit. That gap can be met either by improving good technology or by making the projects more economically viable or setting up the projects in selected areas where the availability of sun light is very high, so that we generate more. So I will only say that we need to wait for another couple of years and we will just be there.

How do you see the geographical positioning for solar energy production?

Rajasthan is very good for solar energy production. In fact, Leh & Ladakh are even better options, for the reasons of low dust accumulation, low temperature and high intensity in the area. Due to these reasons the conversion efficiency increased in cold temperatures. But then the problem of generating energy in those areas poses different difficulty – the energy needs to be transmitted to central areas and that requires huge transmission loss, adding to the cost. So the biggest advantage in solar power production will come if we generate power where we can use it. Roof-tops, therefore, are the better options. If every house generate 10 units a day with roof-top arrangement, that is a saving for the country. That saving will ultimately go to the industry which is spending Rs. 20 per unit. So if domestic sector saves, that power goes to industry which match up to the best. If we export, then our modules need to be of internationally acceptable quality. In that, efficiency is not a very critical component. It is the total wattage of a module that matters and that our companies are able to match. But then there are certain companies which are doing more than average. So we are not trying to match the lower ones, we are trying to match the upper ones.

What is your take on urban renewables?

There are two be put up in 6 weeks whereas the same in thermal project will take 6 years. In urban areas, it is a matter of substituting the conventional energy. That sensitization will take some time.

What message you would like to give through Governance Today on renewable energy?

Our basic message is, use more renewable. It is the requirement of the day. We will produce more. This can become a win-win situation. However, it takes time to happen.

Any collaboration on R&D grounds or in technology trade?

We have collaborations with many research institutes in US, Germany and Japan. The people from all of these countries visit our projects and we do visit their projects. There are joint projects as well. We are collaborating are not only for bringing energy efficiency, but also for system designing, applications and various other aspects.

Is there any pressure to match up to their global benchmark?

Yes, there is always pressure to must switch over to it as early as possible. We can save electricity through renewables. We are also not expecting it to be a 100 per cent substitute of conventional. In our country, airplanes co-exist with bullock cart. So these alternate forms of energy will co-exist. However, the expectation is more from the industry. Industry should come forward, more than the domestic sector to accept renewable. Renewable energy makes a lot of sense for hotel industry, for textile industry, where other forms of  renewables can also be used, not only in power.