Friday, 4 December 2009

India and solar power

India will soon become one of the world's top three energy users. It thinks solar power can plug the fossil fuel gaps

Rhys Blakely

The devotees who trudge hundreds of miles barefoot in the blazing sun to the pilgrimage town of Shirdi in Maharashtra, western India, are traditionally greeted by the aroma of fried spices and the welcome prospect of a good meal. This year, the thousands who have been arriving every day to pay their respects to Sai Baba, a 19th-century holy man said to have worked miracles, have found a new dish on the menu — solar-cooked rice.
In July, the Saibaba Sansthan Trust, the non-profit organisation that tends to the pilgrims’ needs, unveiled the world’s largest solar-powered kitchen. Paid for by the Indian Government, it is capable of feeding 20,000 devotees a day — and of washing the dishes when they are done.
The trust’s vast canteen, which seats 5,000 at a time, has 73 mirrored dishes on its roof. Each 16 square metres in area, the dishes track the sun, reflecting and concentrating its light on to a 25cm (1ft) steel dome and heating it to about 300C (572F). The system generates about 3,500kg of steam a day, funnelled down to the floor below and into a series of giant pressure cookers, each of which can cook 35kg of rice in 20 minutes. The system, which cost about £150,000 to install, saves more than 260kg of liquid petroleum gas a day. The food, I am pleased to report, is delicious.
The main drawback is a familiar one in the world of solar power; during the monsoon, when clouds block the sun, gas has to be used. No matter the weather, the 200,000 chapatis the devotees consume every day are still cooked using fossil fuels. “You just can’t make a good chapati with steam,” a chef explained. When it comes to energy, soggy bread is the least of India’s problems. The country’s economic rise is already outpacing its ability to provide power to its people, and estimates of future growth indicate a looming crisis. Demand for electricity is likely to increase more than five-fold, to 3,870 terawatt-hours a year by 2030, according to McKinsey, the consultancy firm. In the same period, the number of vehicles on India’s already congested roads is expected to rise seven-fold, to about 380 million.

India relies on modest coal reserves for the lion’s share of its power and already imports 70 per cent of the oil it uses. If these forecasts come to pass, within two decades India will be the world’s third largest consumer of energy, after the United States and China. In the process India’s share of world energy consumption will nearly double, and its CO2 emissions, at present among the lowest in the world per person, will likewise jump. Against this gloomy backdrop, a plethora of government-led pilot schemes have sprouted in the past year to showcase renewable energy initiatives. Shirdi’s solar-powered kitchen is among the government’s favourites, but there are also plans to distribute 200 million solar-powered lamps in the next few years, and to install solar panels on all government buildings by 2012.
Among the more eye-catching experiments is a novel bonus plan for banking executives. Those who enable villages to become “fully solar electrified” by lending them the funds to buy small photovoltaic systems, able to power portable TVs and street lighting, will get a 100,000 rupee (£1,300) cash prize.
Experts say such initiatives are a good start, but no more than that. For instance, bankers get no more bonuses once they’ve provided solar power to about 250,000 homes — a drop in the ocean.
A larger programme to subsidise solar farms suffers from a similar problem. The scheme will guarantee minimum prices for the power producers, but will be capped at ten billion rupees over ten years. That is not enough to offset the much greater cost of generating electricity from the sun compared to coal, according to analysts. Most seriously, perhaps, there are fears the grandest plan of all — a $19 billion (£11.5 billion) scheme to make India a global leader in solar power — is just wishful thinking.
The plans call for India to generate 200GW of power from solar sources by 2050 (the world can currently generate only 14GW), but where the money will come from remains unclear. “I fear this is bluster designed for international consumption,” said D. Raghunandan, of the Delhi Science Forum.