Part 1 of this three-part series (Read Part 3 here) dealt with the traditional sources of energy – Coal, Oil, Natural gas, Hydroelectric and Nuclear. In this part, I will review three other sources – Solar energy, Wind energy and Biomass. Of these, Solar and Wind technologies are just rising while biomass, as an energy source, has been used for centuries by people. While burning biomass leads to carbon pollution, it is still the most popular source of energy in India. Its local use and possibility to develop clean energy from it may make it an attractive source of energy.

 

Solar resource map of India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Solar energy:

The numbers associated with solar energy are mind-boggling. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will EVER be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. India receives 600 terawatts of energy every year and states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are superbly positioned to harvest this energy. Given we have most of energy coming from coal and other dirty fuels today and given most of India experiences frequent load-shedding, solar power would be a boon for a country like India.

So whats holding us back? Turns out that solar panels are expensive. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal costs 7 cents/watt while solar energy costs 22 cents/watt. In a country like India where 40% of the population lives below $1 a day, it is difficult to justify such expense. However, in recent years, the costs for solar panels have dropped significantly due to a ramp in production by China and the US. Several companies in India – Reliance, Adani, Moser Baer, Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra etc. – are getting into the solar business. The government has pledged to invest $19 billion in solar power through 2020 through the National Solar Mission. All of these choices literally make the future for solar power bright in India.

Small wind turbines and solar panels on lamp posts in Shanghai (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wind energy:
In 2011, India had an installed capacity of ~16000 MW of wind power, which is a minuscule 1.6% of the total power generated. It is estimated that the total power that can be generated through wind energy is ~65000 MW. Wind energy is abundant in India, however, it is hardly tapped. As compared to India, China, which is the world’s leader in wind production, produced 62,000 MW, of which almost all of the capacity was installed in the last five years. As compared to that, since 2005, India has added only ~10,000 MW of wind capacity.

One reason why China raced ahead in the wind game is because the wind turbines are manufactured in China at extremely low costs and are shipped to other countries at a profit. However, the policy paralysis in India and lack of incentives to clean, renewable power generation has significantly stunted the Indian wind industry. For example, Suzlon, a wind-turbine manufacturing Indian company is facing economic woes due to competition by China. Also, in 2008, wind power in India cost Rs. 3.5/kWh as compared to Rs 1.5/kWh for coal, thus making it almost twice as expensive.

However, with enough government interest, more efficient turbine designs and cheaper manufacturing, India can indeed move to harness wind power in a greater way than so far. A prime example in this case is Tamil Nadu, which has made enormous progress in tapping its wind energy potential. At certain times of the year, up to 40% of the power grid is fed by its massive wind farms. This proportion is next only to Denmark, the world leader in wind energy.

 

Biomass:

Biomass use is not considered “installed capacity” because most of the biomass use occurs in villages and on a very local scale. People burning leaves and wood for heat, using cowdung-cakes for cooking, biogas for energy are all examples of how biomass is used in India. By some estimates, almost a third of the energy in India comes from biomass (56% of biomass-energy comes from wood). The biggest advantages of biomass are its cost – its almost always made from natural waste – and its local generation, which gives the power to control it in the hands of the people.

Both of these issues are also what make biomass unattractive in its current form. Since biomass is largely carbon, burning it releases toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. Also, since the production is not regulated, the process is highly inefficient, and a lot of biomass in the fuel is left underutilized. Finally, biomass use in ecologically threatened areas can lead to wildfires or environmental degradation.

Current challenges, however, call for a redrafting of the biomass-energy strategy. Biogas plants, for example, are an attractive source of local and community energy. The biggest biogas plant in India is in the Patan area of Gujarat. The plant is continually fed by cowdung of the large number of cows in the nearby villages. Large biogas plants are also being set up in Haryana and other states, however, a significant interest by the Central Government is needed in this area.

Another source of biomass-energy thats piquing interest worldwide is biofuels. Plants like corn, switchgrass, jatropha etc. as well as unicellular fatty-acid producing algae are being actively researched for biofuel production. Research on biofuels is abysmally low in India. These fuels can help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil as well as help us reduce our carbon footprint.

The final part of these three part series will try to synthesize the two parts of this short-essay and will try to build a coherent picture of the energy policy in India.  Stay tuned!