Singur’s lessons for solar power

Whether or not the Nuclear Suppliers Group approves the Indo-US nuclear deal — this is unclear as I write this column — many experts think India should focus on solar rather than nuclear power for the future. An excellent case for this was made recently in this newspaper by Anand Mahindra.

However, events at Singur and other places in West Bengal and Orissa give warning of huge popular resistance to land acquisition for future power plants. This will be a serious problem for nuclear power plants, because of radiation risks. And it may prove an insurmountable hurdle for solar power because of the huge acreage needed.

Solar energy is plentiful but dilute. Huge areas are needed to generate 1,000 MW of solar power. China commissions new generating capacity of 1,000 MW every week. In a decade, India too may need that much additional capacity every week. Experts foresee difficulties in getting enough coal and gas for such breakneck expansion beyond 2030.

Besides, fossil fuels generate huge greenhouse emissions. Will nuclear and renewable energy come to the rescue? Consider solar technology. For decades, the emphasis was on photo-voltaic cells that directly convert sunlight into electricity. Photo-voltaic panels sit mainly on roofs, and need little land. But the best panels provide intermittent power at Rs 9/unit, four times the cost of coal-based power.

Far more promising is concentrated solar power (CSP). Parabolic mirrors, shaped as ultra-long troughs, concentrate sunlight onto a long tube of molten salts that store heat. This heat is then used in a conventional thermal power plant. The latest CSP plants aim to reduce the cost of electricity to Rs 4/unit. With improvements, CSP could be competitive with conventional electricity. Hence, Mahindra — and many others — think CSP is the energy of the future, not coal-based or nuclear power.

Most new experimental plants are coming up in the Mojave desert in the US, where the skies are cloudless and land is plentiful and cheap. India, too, has 170,000 sq miles of desert, says Mahindra. Instead of the current timid solar research programme in India, providing modest subsidies for small solar thermal plants up to 5 MW, Mahindra advocates big subsidies for plants of 50 MW and more, including hybrid plants using both solar and fossil fuel.

However, the existence of Indian deserts does not mean there is no land problem. Many past attempts to harness government-owned wasteland for plantations have been stalled by villagers, because what the government classifies as wasteland is used by them for grazing, collecting minor timber and produce, and as transport corridors. Villagers have spurned joint venture proposals in which paper companies offer them a share of the benefits — they simply do not trust the government or corporations.

Moreover, solar mirrors need water to wash off dust, and water is very scarce in a desert. Villagers will resist diversion of existing water sources to solar power projects.

How much land do CSP plants need? Consider the four biggest plants coming up in the US.

• A joint venture headed by Spain’s Abengoa Solar will use 1,800 acres to generate 280 MW, starting 2011.

• Florida Power and Light will use parabolic mirrors over 2,012 acres to generate 250 MW.

• Stirling Energy Systems will use 4,500 acres to generate 500MW, upgradable to 850MW.

• Solel, an Israeli specialist, will use 6,000 acres to generate 553 MW.

So, a plant of 1,000 MW might need 10,000 acres. Can such huge areas of contiguous land be acquired easily? IAS officers familiar with Rajasthan tell me that, except for a few favourable locations, this will be difficult. If we want to commission 1,000 MW of new capacity every week, based on solar power, we will need first to acquire 10,000 acres per week! Renewable energy is land-intensive. This has been highlighted dramatically by biofuels: diverting part of the US maize crop to fuel sparked a doubling of world food prices. The energy needed by a modern economy is enormous, and — given current technology — cannot be based mainly on land-intensive renewables.

Nuclear energy advocates will say ‘‘I told you so.” But nuclear energy, too, faces formidable land problems. India’s nuclear power plants are running at half capacity for want of uranium. Opening new uranium mines in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya is a top security priority, but has been stalled for years by protesting villagers. They have heard of deformed babies in villages surrounding the existing Jaduguda mines, and do not trust government assurances that mining in the two new locations will be safe.

Protests by villagers and greens have also delayed the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. Every new location will face major battles. Only expansion of capacity at existing locations will be trouble-free.

There are no easy solutions. Fossil fuels, nuclear fuels and renewable sources all pose problems. So, R&D incentives should be available for all technologies, instead of trying to pick winners in advance. We should let energy shortages be reflected in high prices. This will spur innovations that greatly reduce generation costs, or electricity demand, or both. Let a thousand ideas bloom.

What do you think?