There's No Energy Nirvana In Solar Energy For India

Jaideep A Prabhu

Dec 02, 2015, 09:40 PM | Updated Feb 10, 2016, 05:45 PM IST

Great headlines do not necessarily make for great policy. The announcement of the Solar Alliance by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President François Hollande on the opening day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris certainly fits the bill. The aim of this alliance of 121 countries, including the United States and China, is to mobilise $1 trillion dollars by 2030 to fund solar energy throughout the world. Each member of the alliance will also strive to reduce the cost of financing for solar projects within its realm and support development of solar technology around the world.

For India’s part, Modi has pledged $30 million to build, host, and support the headquarters of the International Agency for Solar Technologies and Applications (IASTA) for five years. Modi also committed India to installing 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022, of which 100 GW will be solar power. The economy of scale, the government hopes, will drive down prices and make the power of the sun affordable to India’s teeming millions. International cooperation, greater economies of scale and shared technological development should remedy the shortcomings of solar power eventually.

In principle, this is not a bad policy; any move away from fossil fuel must be applauded. However, there are severe limitations to solar power that are yet to be addressed and India’s wholesale embrace of a technology that might not give the best bang for the buck is worrisome. Worse, Modi seems to have put all his eggs in one renewables basket that he wishes to grow to 40 per cent of the total energy mix by 2030. At present, this seems like little more than chasing the solar unicorn.

Network engineers classify power consumption into two broad categories – baseload, which is the minimum amount of power that is needed at any time of the day, and peak power, which is the maximum amount of power needed at certain specific times of the day. One problem that restricts solar energy from becoming the primary source of baseload power is that it is intermittent. This means that it comes and goes according to nature’s rhythms and does not quite fit the pattern of a normal human workday. Solar power may help meet peak demand if the requirement coincides with a clear and sunny afternoon. With a heavy emphasis on solar power expansion, India would be hitching its electricity generation, and by implication, economic growth, to the vagaries of nature. Germany’s Energiewende has shown that excessive dependence on renewable energy has raised the cost of electricity to consumers as well as increased reliance on coal and gas power plants for backup for when the sun is not shining. As a result, Germany’s green solution is looking rather brown.

Solar enthusiasts recommend energy storage systems to overcome its questionable reliability. If energy can be stored whenever it is generated and drawn when it is needed, surely solar power can serve as another baseload contributor. This sounds good in theory but fails in practice. There is, as yet, no viable energy storage device for a single home, let alone across entire grids. Lead-acid batteries have efficiency and environmental issues but even opting for the more expensive and recyclable lithium ion batteries provides little solution: just to compare numbers and put matters in perspective, the world’s annual production of Li-ion batteries stood around 8.3 GWh in 2014; India’s energy consumption that year was slightly over 1.1 million GWh.

There are also some serious questions about material availability. Some 95 per cent of the world’s lithium is found in Bolivia, Chile, China, the United States, Argentina, and Australia. Mining sufficient volumes would present a challenge but not an insurmountable one. If Li-ion batteries took off, this concentration of suppliers could create its own geopolitical problems not dissimilar to today’s petropolitics. To be fair, however, the recyclability of lithium would prevent it from becoming as amoral.

The efficiency of solar panels is another concern. Most solar panels have a rating of approximately 20 per cent and a lifespan of 20 years. Each year, the panels lose about a percentage point in their efficiency. To generate the sort of power that India would need – 1.25 billion (and counting) people with GDP growth between 8 and 10 per cent – vast tracts of land would be required despite India’s more fortunate insolation.

The difficulties over land acquisition in India are well known, and if solar farms are moved into desolate areas to circumvent legal entanglements, the cost of both, their maintenance and transmission, would be higher. Furthermore, the impact of utility-scale solar power on land is not favourable and low-quality locations such as barren land or abandoned mining sites would have to be used to minimise ecological impact. The amount of land required should also give the government some pause. Even the most advanced solar panels remain inefficient and to generate the same amount of power a nuclear plant can on a 400-acre site will require land more by at least an order of magnitude.

Solar panels need water to keep them clean. Photo voltaic cells are not friendly to dust, grime, or rain and deteriorate over time. Dirt reduces the already low efficiency of solar panels. Ironically, some of the site most suited to solar farms like Rajasthan, north-west Gujarat, central Maharashtra, western Andhra Pradesh, and northern Karnataka are also some of the drier regions of the country. In a country where even agriculture flounders because of a slightly delayed monsoon, it seems unlikely that solar panels will have the priority over water use.

Whom does a national solar strategy benefit? Presently, the solar power market in India is dominated by Chinese companies. Despite distance and logistics favouring them, Indian manufacturers cannot match the price quoted by their Chinese competitors. Petitioned by local business, the government considered anti-dumping duties and reluctantly imposed them after a time but the World Trade Organisation recently disagreed with India’s claims and forbade such measures. With the construction of a 100 GW capacity in play, one wonders if it is China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the United States that will benefit or Make in India. The flip side to this conundrum, of course, is the environmental cost of polysilicon manufacture that India will avoid by importing solar panels.

An oft-neglected aspect of solar power and its ‘zero ecological footprint’ is the highly toxic manufacturing process. The chemicals required to clean and purify silicon leave behind a toxic sludge that can be an environmental hazard. Most manufacturing has moved to countries with lax environmental laws such as China to lower production costs. As a result, large swathes of the Chinese countryside have been polluted with dangerous chemicals such as silicon tetrachloride, gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, cadmium-telluride, sulphur hexaflouride, thiourea, selenium hydride, nitrogen trifluoride, indium phosphide, hydrofluoric acid, and hexafluoroethane. These seep into the groundwater with deleterious effects on crops, fish, animals, and humans. Polysilicon can be recycled but little investment has been made in the process, which consumes a lot of energy and is expensive.

When solar power was in its infancy, no one noticed the problems it caused to the grid because they were small and did not matter much. However, with countries like Germany ramping up solar power, grid stability has become a much greater problem. Electricity grids must always function on the total power generation being equal to the total power demanded. If this is not true, it could cause problems and even trip the grid. With reliable sources of power such as hydro and nuclear, this is easy to manage. However, with solar power, grid engineers experience wild fluctuations in power generation. The amount of power generated by photo voltaic cells can change dramatically in response to unpredictable environmental factors such as cloud cover or temperature. Fast-moving clouds, for example, can reduce the electrical output of solar panels by up to 50 per cent within a few seconds. Currently, engineers use frequency regulation services to compensate for these fluctuations. These add to the total cost of solar power but more importantly, point to the need for significant grid upgradation if solar power is to be accommodated. Does India really need to incur these unnecessary costs?

Even if India were to accept the pains and costs of a decentralised power market and smarter grids, the economics of solar power can also inhibit optimal growth. There is a serious mismatch between the diurnal variation of electricity generated by renewable sources and the diurnal variation of demand for electricity. Simply put, in such markets, the value of solar power decreases as the volume added to the grid increases. When solar power generation is at its maximum on a sunny afternoon, the demand for it is low and utilities will hesitate to pay generators the same amount as earlier or later in the day. According to studies in California, Texas, and Germany, the value of solar power will fall by half by the time it reaches 15 per cent grid capacity and it will be only a quarter as valuable if its capacity reaches 50 per cent. Given that Modi intends to generate about 40 per cent of India’s electricity from renewables by 2030, this might be an important factor to keep in mind.

To be sure, any step away from fossil fuels is good. However, solar power is not the optimal use of India’s resources upon which there are many other demands already. Currently, without large government subsidies, solar power is little more than a fashion statement – rich people who can afford solar panels and storage and do not care about a timely return on their investment may be interested in solar power for its symbolic value. In this manner, solar power can still play a role in the national energy mix, albeit a small one – rooftop, off-grid solar installations can reduce the demand on the national electric grid. Yet to take a personal solution and to inflate it to an international agenda might be to overlook a few hiccups.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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