Alternative energy: A sensible option

Solar panels will reduce the impacts of thermal power and the ecological footprint of electricity-hungry urban areas.

A new government, a flurry of activity, and India soon wants to be a country of cities. The diet of new development has one core ingredient – electricity. India’s electricity supply continues to depend primarily on coal. Hydrocarbon-based energy has elevated India into the digital age, but has simultaneously raised the country’s energy deficit to a whopping 42 per cent. Currently, our most modern technology is almost completely dependent on million year-old forests, pressured and compressed into the black, flammable coal that blazes our path into the 21st century. However, India has recently begun to launch schemes to enable end users to shift to renewable energy, such as solar power. 

The Karnataka state government just joined a small collective of states, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, New Delhi and Gujarat, in offering solar-power buyback schemes. The Surya Raita scheme in Karnataka encourages rural solar power production. If a farmer produces 400 units of solar-power but only uses 300 units, the rest will be bought by the state and fed into the regular grid. The benefits of this scheme are manifold. First, farmers could be self-sufficient in terms of electricity, reducing demand on state electric grids. Second, farmers could have an additional source of income, while state grids have additional sources of power. Third, on-site generation of electricity reduces losses to grid leakage and is much more efficient. The fourth, more important, yet less discussed advantage is the benefit of shifting away from thermal power.

Unmatched appetite
India’s development boom has resulted in industry’s unprecedented appetite for coal. To fill this gap, the environment ministry is keen to allow a large number of proposed coal mines in forests, by modifying forest diversion rules. The big question is: will all these new coal mines help reduce India’s energy deficit?

Our energy deficit ought to be caused by a lack of enough coal. This seems logical. However, several studies and exposes, in the wake of the coalgate scandal, have revealed complicated linkages between government and industry that serve to artificially enhance energy deficit. The Prayas Energy Group came out with a report in March 2014 that found four political and economic causes for coal shortages. These include a lack of corrective policy, problems with allocation and pricing of domestic versus imported coal.

Ushering India into a new age entails new thinking. Alternative paths to achieve the same goal of country-wide electrification have been proven viable. Renewable technology like solar power generation can not only eliminate the environmental impacts of deforestation, mining and thermal plants, but also overcome the distributional losses that plague our electricity grids, through on-site generation. Solar panels, by design, can be thought of as self-sufficient power generating units that can be fitted on rooftops and in gardens, rather than requiring additional land. Not only will this help reduce the impacts of thermal power, it will also reduce the ecological footprint of electricity-hungry urban areas.

The efficiency of this alternative technology has also improved drastically. For instance a 2013 study in the UK discovered that aluminium nanostructures in solar panels were 22 per cent more efficient than the gold or silver nanostructures that are currently used. This not only makes solar power better, it also makes it cheaper. These realities of alternative energy should be making us ask why new cities in India are not planned around these technological developments. For instance, why not make the new capital city of Seemandhra, the 11th solar-city in the world?
Solar power is not without its drawbacks. Cloudy days, reliance on expensive batteries and metallic components that need to be mined detract some of the sheen of solar panels. Solar farms are also extreme heat generators, taking up land that could have otherwise been put to other uses, including leaving it free for wildlife. Despite this, solar energy still scores higher than coal-based thermal power in a number of ways. First, the health impacts of thermal power are astounding. Research has linked air pollution from thermal power plants to cancer, and deforestation to mine coal further worsens air quality and decreases rainfall. Combined with the health benefits, not switching to alternative energy sources seems criminal.

Speaking about India’s power sector, the former chairman of India’s Economic Advisory Council, C Rangarajan said, “What India adds to its generation capacity in five years, China one year.” Perhaps that is the reason that the residents of China’s capital Beijing, walk around with masks on their noses to combat the atrocious air quality. One wonders what the Indian government will do if such a situation were to arise? Perhaps ban Chulhas!

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