Going Solar- One Cell at a Time

Solar energy has the power to disarm you with its apparent simplicity, which is perhaps the reason why there has been such a spurt in excitement surrounding this still nascent sector over the last few years. For a nation whose energy woes are likely to multiply exponentially in the not too distant future, it represents that one glimmer of hope, the Holy Grail as it were, of actually being able to fight off the tyranny of perennial oil dependency, and break free of both the economic and  political shackles that this dependency has imposed upon this country for far too long.

With India being blessed with more than abundant sunshine almost throughout the year, solar energy would appear at once to be the one stop solution to all our energy woes, while also going a long way towards mitigating the myriad environmental concerns that tend to weigh upon every single decision we take in the era of the Big Green.

So what stops us then, why are we still to hear of big ticket solar deals, along the lines of the Areva nuclear complex in Jaitapur, or the numerous wind power farms being set up in different parts of the country?…. Regrettably, the depressing reality is that in spite of the best efforts of all concerned, currently available technology has yet to render solar energy as an economically viable source of power on a large scale. Fossil fuels are still the way to go if you are looking for a relatively inexpensive and easily accessible source of power, with most renewables still coming considerably down the preference chain.

What’s the way out?… are we to quietly allow our single biggest (perhaps only?..) natural energy resource to continue to go to waste?…is there really no light, pun unintended, at the end of the tunnel?…Well, perhaps such despair would be a little premature, at least insofar as the medium to long term picture is concerned. Even though solar energy remains high on absolute costs compared to coal, recent advances in the field of photovoltaic cell technology have at long last shown some hope of solar power catching up at some point in the future. With nearly 5,000 trillion kWh/year of energy being incident over the Indian landscape every year, and most parts receiving 4-7 kWh per sq. m per day (as per a recent JNNSM document), we may finally be in a position to cash in on the annual misery that is inflicted upon us in the form of the brutally searing summers that the entire country experiences year after year. States like Gujarat and Rajasthan, which receive sunshine aplenty for upwards of 300 days a year, are ideally placed for the setting up of large scale photo-voltaic complexes.  More importantly, the only way manufacturing costs for photovoltaic cells can come down is through greater demand- economies of scale tend to lower costs in unexpected ways, so for solar power to be a game changer, we must ensure to continue to plough in more investment into both commercial as well as technological development of the photo voltaic cell technology.  Towards this end, a number of major players have already chosen to set up shop in anticipation of increasing demand emerging in the near future- Moser Baer, Tata BP, Reliance Industries, Signet Solar, Applied Materials, Solar Semiconductor, Orion Solar, Numeric and DD Berg are but some of the names expected to/already have marked a major foray into this fast growing segment.

But before we get ahead of ourselves and start playing ourselves up as the next superstars of global solar power, a reality check would be in order. First of all, at the very best, solar power could, at some point in the future, help address our foreign exchange concerns, but don’t go around having visions of Saudi-esque grandeur any time soon…Let’s not forget, there’s plenty of sunshine available elsewhere as well- the entire Middle Eastern region to start with..add Africa as well….North America doesn’t do too badly either and as for Europe, while the UK may have more than its fair share of rain,  in next door Norway , the sun doesn’t even set for six months at a go. So while we may be able to save big-time on our import bills, a revenue earner solar power will not be- don’t go around expecting $ 1000 cheques, a la Kuwait,  each time the clouds set in over the Thames.

However, leaving aside your bank balance, the fact is that if you believe in renewable energy, it’s pretty hard to look beyond the sun. It’s going to be around for a long, long time to come, far more so than petrol, diesel or CNG- that in itself is the most obvious and yet most compelling reason for us to take it more seriously than we do at the moment.Whether for this generation or the next, solar energy will be an integral part of the energy mix of the future-and that’s as blindingly clear as the sunlight outside your window.

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