April 14, 2013

The Power of 'Uninterrupted Power'

The utility of solar power might be wide spread, however, its true beauty lies in illuminating the darkness. We were able to successfully display this beauty in our recently completed project. We have successfully given uninterrupted power and uninterrupted water to 3 tribal girl's schools near Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. 

The Govt has provided good infrastructure for the students in the tribal areas. I believe the better allocation of funds and good roads are two major reasons for this development. However, continuous power outages is a major bottle neck for improvement in quality of life for students in the hostels of the tribal schools. Fundamentally, electricity from the grid is used for providing lighting, fans and computers during the day and to drive the water pumps. Apart from this there is usually an RO System in the school which works on grid power. All these gets affected during power outages leading to low productivity of the student.

We approached the right authorities with a proposal for using solar power to improve the conditions of the students at these schools. In our initial survey, we observed that the students fundamentally needed lights during the evening for their studies and water to be pumped to the overhead tanks for use in bathrooms / kitchens. Rest of the activities could be adjusted in whatever grid power is being given to the schools. Accordingly we proposed the Solar Water Pumping and Solar PV Rooftop System for the schools.

Working in the rural is not a very easy task considering the sever limitations of transport, people and mobile signals. Precise planning, procurement and robust execution is essential. Any mistake done during installation due lethargy or "chalta hai" attitude can become detrimental to you on account of recurring maintenance works. Every single student of those schools is our customer and we owe them a system that fulfills their basic needs with least possible interruption. More the mistakes, more is the failure rate of the system leading to spiraling expenses during the maintenance period. Meticulousness and good quality installation is an investment to maximize returns especially in projects executed in rural regions.

 On the last day of the last site that we worked on, we felt the sweet taste of success. We were looking at about 100 girls sitting in the study area at around 2000 hrs studying for the next day's exam while the areas around the school were under the blanket of darkness. I could see the impact of the solar PV system on the productivity and learning of the students of the school. It was a moment of instant gratification and sense of achievement of our vision behind the project.

In case of these tribal schools, uninterrupted power is not only about illuminating the darkness. It is about creating an opportunity that never was. It's about giving flight to the wings. The pleasure of not fearing to have to live in darkness and having water running from the taps or flushes at any time is a luxury in the places we have worked. 

We look forward to doing further such projects where we keep spreading the real beauty of Photovoltaics.  


September 2, 2012

The Cost Efficiency of Photovoltaics

The very fundamental of the success of any technology or product is the economic feasibility to the investor. The green technologies for power generation are no different. Usually all the technologies at their nacent stage are not cost effective due to lack of scale. However, if the product has the potential to benefit the community as a whole, the government usually pitches in and subsidises it initially to make it affordable. Once, the volumes of the product/technology increases, the market forces automatically bring down the cost and eliminate the need for subsidy in many cases. Photovoltaics is one such case. The Government of India via it's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has provided different drivers for making solar power affordable to the public in general. I will discuss about one of the drivers, subsidy.

Subsidy driver is specifically targeted towards the off grid market or distributed generation. As per the defination of off grid, it is any system which is a 100% captive solar PV system (does not feed to the grid) with a size less than 100 KWp and is connected to the LT side of the electrical system. MNRE has given a bench mark pricing of Rs 270 / Wp for a battery based system and Rs 190/Wp for a non battery based system. Wp is the rating of the capacity of the installation. There is a facility to avail a central financial assistance for 30% of the project cost upto the maximum of the bench mark costs. The bench mark is reduced year on year to keep up with the current market scenario. Apart from the subsidy, the investor can avail upto 80% accelarated depreciation from his taxable income. Assuming the investor is in the 30% tax bracket, upto 50% of the investment on the project is repayed back via subsidy and tax benefit only.

Such financial benefits are excellent for companies paying the present commericial tarrifs of Rs 6.00 per unit and above. Factoring in the increase of tarrif year on year, the financial benefits given by the Government and the present prices of the photovoltaics, a payback of 4-5 years is a reality. The lifetime of  well designed and well engineered PV system will definitely be greater than 15 years, hence giving much more worth to the investors money.

For certain limited specified models of Solar PV systems, there is a bank loan facility of 5% pa from any nationalized banks for non commercial or individual customers for 50% of the system cost. However, the models in this case are smaller in size, specifically for the rural areas and suitable for power backup systems only.

The process for applying and availing subsidy has more than one channel and for every channel the procedures are well laid down. The only issue is the high amount of time required and the paper work in applying for and the disbursement of the subsidy. It is however a small price for the kind of savings that one can achieve.

In a nutshell any commercial entity paying Rs 6 and above as its energy charges will benefit a great deal economically by the installation of Solar PV system. The system size depends on the connected power load and the area available on site. However, the payback remains nearly the same for a large range of system size.

There are other drivers from MNRE which specifically aim at increasing the generation of solar power being fed into the grid. Such systems encorage establishing Solar PV power plants to the tune of few MWs. Feed in tarrif is one such driver where the power producer gets a higher tarrif as compared to other conventional sources of power. Secondly, there is a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) scheme under which 1 REC is issued against every 1000 units generated by PV power plant. These RECs can be traded in the power exchange for the price of the REC. The price of the REC has been fixed between Rs 9300 to Rs 13,400 per REC. Apart from the revenue generated from REC, the power producer will get the Average Power Purchase Cost of the Discom.

The subsidy driver acts towards making the "consumption" of solar PV generated power affordable for the investor where as the Feed in tarrif and REC mechanism focus on making "generation" of PV power financially vaible for the power producer.

In conclusion, with the existing policy frame work, solar power is not expensive but much more financially vaible than the conventional sources of power. If you want to make use of this amazing investment opportunity please contact me at varun.sarwate@sunpossible.in . We are focussing on promoting the off gid or distributed power generation systems for commercial and non commercial entities.

August 26, 2012

Solar Power: The most efficient and cost effective form of power

The cliche statement about solar power is - " Its Expensive!" , but this is the way the normal thought process is. However, thinking from a larger perspective, Solar Power is in fact the most efficient form of power and also the most cost effective. Let me first talk about the efficiency and later about the cost.

As per the sankey diagram below, It is quiet clear that for every 100 units of input energy from coal, only about 21% reaches the end user, considering the generation and distribution losses. Just keep in mind the 21% figure. The figure of 9% transmission losses is a very positive figure for a country like India, however, I have used it for the purpose of analysis. This is as the world sees things normally.
Energy Loss Sankey Diagram
(Source: www.sankey-diagram.com)

Going back to the basic lessons on science which were taught to us in the primary school, we can recollect that Sun is the mother of all the various forms of energy that exist around us. All sources of energy below the surface of earth like coal, uranium, petroleum, natural gas or on the surface like hydel, tidal etc or above the ground like wind energy can be traced back to the energy received from the sun.

In fact, in case of coal or petroleum, there is a delay of 300 million years between the time the energy arrived on the earth and the time we use it to fuel our power plants. When we talk about efficiency, we must consider the efficiency of this process too! The conversion efficiency to coal (over a period of 300 million years) cannot be more than 50-60%.

Considering both efficiencies of 21% and 60%, we see that from Solar Energy to Electricity conversion (including 9% transmission losses) in case of a coal fired power station is 12-13% at the very best! Comparing this with the present photovoltaic technology where sunlight to electricity conversion happens at the minimum of 13.5% (15% at generation and 9% transmission losses). Who do you think is more efficient?

I have not even touched the energy that is lost in the mining activity, transport and other activities in the whole  supply chain. Let us for the time being assume that the same amount of per unit energy consumption goes into the supply chain of silicon and solar cell fabrication.

As per the cost of energy, it true that for the end consumer, electricity is available at a very low cost. However, in order to facilitate that there is a huge amount of subsidy that is spent by the government. As per Energitica, a well known publication on energy matters, Coal India Limited, a govt. owned public company is the largest supplier of coal in India and sells coal at roughly 50% of the global prices on energy equivalent basis. Last year, Coal India sold 431 million tonnes. On a conservative estimate of Rs 1000 per ton price differential from international coal prices, the implicit subsidy translates to Rs 43100 crores per year. Over and above the subsidy, the average T&D losses of 33% further makes the price per usable unit of electricity dearer.

This consciousness about the energy price is very clear to the GOI and hence, they have introduced excellent mechanisms to make the use of Solar PV electricity extremely viable. In fact on a life cycle cost basis Solar PV power can be much lower than the grid power purchase.

In the next blog I will throw further light on  "How to make Solar PV power viable". Till then I hope you are partly convinced that Solar Photovoltaics is competitive in efficiency as well as generation cost with the so called conventional and cheaper coal generated power.  

August 21, 2010

Solar India

Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission - branded as Solar India is beyond any one's expectation. I believe it is for the first time any country has voluntarily decided to put serious efforts in order to promote the use of Solar Power. An effort that is extremely calculated, transparent and at the same time very lucrative for private participation. It is a mission promoted by a very capable team doing the right job at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and its associated organizations.

After attending many seminars, meetings, client interactions, workshops etc in the past 8 months since the launch of the mission one aspect that truly stands out is the seriousness of all the stake holders of JNNSM including the government and the private sector.

However, at this junction of time when there is a mad rush of proponents, the atmospehere is extremely competitive. Due to this competition. there is a disconnect that I observe. A disconnect between finance and technology. This I believe is rooted in the basic Indian Philosophy of trying to reduce costs to the maximum. I foresee some real problems that can arise out of the lifetime of the power plants constructed in the first phase of the Mission.

Having spent almost 3 years in photovoltaics, I am well aware of the various hazards that can happen at site on the photovlatic power plant over its operating life. The risk of hazards is mostly related to the poor quality material and poor installation practices. The Mission does take care of minimizing the poor quality material, however, cannot eliminate it completely. Poor installation practices must be avoided by the project developer by bringing in good expertise to compete the project. The project developers need to understand that it is not possible to create a good power plant by just sub contracting all the activities directly without the help of a EPC contractor who is well aware of the best practices of building a solar power plant. It is in the interest of the developer itself to spend that extra buck and make things right in the first place to avoid mammoth maintenance costs that can be incurred. If my experience can be generalized, Indian project developers have yet not evolved out of the age old philosophy of "Do It Yourself" and save that extra buck initially. I do agree that the awareness is increasing, however, a decent percentage of developers will pay the cost of Ignorance over the operating lifetime of the power plant.

The high disparity between the GBI's of the different states is just adding fuel to the fire. It is an additional reason that is giving an impetus to even more cost cutting. There will be significant difference in the rate of return for a power plant is Gujarat and that in Maharashtra due to the difference of close to Rs 2.5 per unit in the Feed In Tariffs of the respective states. The NVVN scheme of reverse auction is also a source of frustration among the smaller project developers and will also encourage the cost cutting measures to go down by that extra paisa per unit to get the project through.

The hazards of an improperly designed/ built solar power plant are significant and cause sever loss to the equipment leading to loss of revenue as well as cost to rebuild. In the process, there can be a situation where one might lose their interests in pursuing with the operation of the power plant. There are many failed solar power installations around the world and the project developers need to keep it in mind.

Few of the problems in power plant operation could be:

1. Reduction in the energy output to the grid
2. Frequent shut down of Inverters

3. Development of heat spots in the modules, burning of modules, Junction boxes, cables etc
4. Excessive losses in the power plant
5. Equipment failure

and many more....

I truly wish that all the PV power plants installed in the first phase of the Mission are built and operated hassle free for their whole life time of 25 years. However, the project developer needs to be aware of the harsh realities of solar power.

As I end my blog, I would like to quote Dr Farooq Abdullah's (Honourable Minister, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Gov. of India) statement at the Inauguration of Solarcon 2010 in Hyderabad, "महंगा रोये एक बार,  सस्ता रोये बार बार". I truly appreciate Dr Abdullah's efforts to bring in the best in the country, but it still remains a test of the commitment of the  private sector. In this highly competitive environment will they bring in the best or the cheapest. I hope it is not the latter as it will just make a mockery out of the most ambitious mission for the promotion of solar energy on the world stage.

March 31, 2010

The Magic Called Photovoltaics

The need for energy in today’s world can be nothing but increasing. As Mahatma Gandhi said “Nature can feed a man’s need, but not his greed”, the energy sources are limited. One source of unlimited energy however, which we call the mother of all energy sources, is the Sun. It is this sun that in many cultures is worshipped, considered God. This divinity is what lights up the world during the day. Technology when added to the divinity can light up the darkness of the night. This is where photovoltaics can play a big role. I am talking about the 1.6 billion (Source: World Bank) people in this world who live in darkness from sunset to sunrise. There might be people who have neither seen nor heard of the magic of electricity. This is where the true application of photovoltaics lies. As Dr Harish Hande (MD and Founder of SELCO, Bangalore) said once, “Photovoltaics is expensive for the rich but cheap for the poor”. The environmental benefits of photovoltaics are well known to all and I don’t intend to write about them. Photovoltaics has its share of applications for the whole world in general, electrified or un-electrified.

Electricity as described in Harry Potter series is “what muggles use instead of magic”. Indeed electricity is synonymous to magic. I believe that photovoltaics is the magic of semi-conductors. The energy radiated by the sun is absorbed and converted to electricity without any emission or any rotation/movement.

My white paper on "Power where it is Needed: Promise of Photovoltaics"  can be accessed here. I am pleased to inform you the launch of our brand, Sunpossible, to provide the best possible and reliable solar powered solution. Watch this space for an overview of photovoltaics, the latest offerings of this magic and the world with respect to this phenomenal technology.