Solar – A Gift That Keeps Giving

Here’s a peek into what we have been doing at Oorjan for last few months, in which we got associated with a very noble cause I really wanted to share.

Solar Energy is making headlines daily these days. We hear of massive capacity allocation plans by central governments, of entire land masses being powered by solar only. I believe this is just the start of the revolution globally. Even more so in India – where we get <1% of our electricity from solar energy currently.

In these major announcements, we lose focus on how solar energy can empower us and people all around us, in a very tangible way. Solar energy (via photovoltaic cells) is elegant – it’s simple, lasts decades and is easy to adopt. The benefits are magnified when it is generated at the point of consumption – on your very own roofs. Just like people vouch by their kitchen gardens, this is your “electron garden” and I can promise you it takes less effort to maintain the latter 🙂

A recent project completed by Oorjan was a great reminder to some of these benefits. We installed a 6-KW project for Vatsalya Trust, an orphanage, in the heart of Mumbai, India. Based on Mumbai sunshine, we expect to produce on average 800 units of solar electricity per month. This saves the Trust around INR 9000 per month, or 30% of their bill at the current rates. This system will last 25 years (with a slight reduction is output annually).  In the context of a orphanage – this is a substantial saving that can be used towards the care-taking of the kids, with no change in their lifestyle. INR 9000 to the Trust means 4 kids’ monthly expenses are covered, which is significant considering they have about 30-40 kids at any point of time. They are already considering increasing the solar installation size.

This continues for EVERY YEAR of the project life. This project was donated to the orphanage, as part of the CSR campaign of some organizations – a perfect donation in my opinion. More should consider and follow suit.

I derived a lot of satisfaction in working with the Vatsalya Trust and it’s caretakers. What a PASSIONATE management team (all of them making Vatsalya their second careers after very rewarding careers in their early years)! They take in kids as young as 1- week old – it’s gut wrenching to see 3-day olds abandoned by parents… but thankfully being taken care of by Vatsalya. They have a cradle outside their gates, and have often found kids left in that overnight. They call themselves the “interim parents” while they try to place the kids in good families via adoption. They have 150 families waiting to adopt!

To list a few of their accomplishments, Vatsalya Trust has provided:

  • 30+ years of service in their mission.
  • Have placed 1200 kids in good families. The first few adopted kids have returned to serve the home with their own kids now. They do not allow kids with any kinds of physical limitations to be adopted and take care of them throughout their lives.
  • Are imparting free computer literacy classes to grown-up girls and placing them in corporate jobs, hence setting them towards self-sufficiency forever.
  • Have two more centers – one orphanage in Alibaug and a center for grown up, orphaned girls. They are also in the process of constructing an “elder’s home” nearby.

Friends, I would encourage you to open your hearts for this great institution. When you think of donating, please keep them in mind, for the cause of kids in general (not solar).

You can reach out to them directly at vatsalyatrustmumbai@gmail.com or http://www.vatsalyatrustmumbai.org/.  Ping me if you need help contacting them.

Rooftop Solar Plant @ Vatsalya

Rooftop Solar Plant @ Vatsalya

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Parting Thoughts – Solar Thermal / CSP

As of this month (August 2014) – I am no longer with AREVA. I have ventured out on my own and finally “just effing doing it” – but more on that later.

I have been associated with solar thermal (CSP) for almost 5 years now, split evently between California and India. Have written a couple of posts about what I thought were the primary advantages, drivers and challenges for the technology (at the time) here and here. It has been an excellent ride in terms of learning of whether a fledgling technology can flourish or not, may or may not, in fact, depend on the technology as such. CSP did not ever “really take off” in USA but here I will focus on the reasons in India.

Large scale CSP in India is broken at the moment. I see no meaningful revival in the next 4-5 years and most likely, ever.

Two of the main advantages of the solar thermal technology that remained in the last 3-4 years were (1) energy storage and (2) hybridization with other steam based power technologies like coal, biomass, combined cycle plants, etc. Of course there is the localization and job potential in India, but much of that can be obtained with PV as well.

Energy Storage

CSP can provide energy storage using molten salts. It’s proven with many 100s of MW running in Spain successfully for the last many years. It increases the upfront cost, but the idea is that the added generation should offset this added cost over the lifetime. It also provides a “firmer” output than you will get with solar direct technology as the variation in power generation can be managed.

Now India needs more electrons on the grid, day or night. Most of us have read articles about the “power deficit” in the country and those numbers don’t even include the unelectrified 100 million or so!In addition the question about firmness of the grid with the renewables variability is constantly being proven as a red herring, with Germany, Portugal and California production profiles leading the way. Energy storage and firmness is just a “nice to have” feature at the moment, especially if it comes with any risks of defocussing time and money towards PV programs.

Hybridization

Now this is quite relevant in the context of India have to import a lot of the coal and gas. There are MANY plants running way below their expected utilization due to fuel supply problems. Integrating CSP into those, would be a great win-win. So why are we not doing it? 

Well, the stock answer from the policy-makers is that it’s difficult to measure, hence incentivize the contribution of CSP in such plants due to “thermal” not electric contribution. This is an excuse. Many more complicated incentive problems have been solved in the energy space. So it’s more a function of the opportunity cost – the subset of plants that are in good solar region AND have flat land nearby AND have spare capacity AND compatible turbines is small. Maybe a few 100MW all over India. Similar challenges lie with biomass integration too. So the potential dent it can make in India RE goals is quite small.

Having said that, the CSP industry also did not serve itself well. It ended up being a visible failure due to developers and external financial factors, and the policymakers lost interest. Of course there are many other reasons that are debated ad nauseum, but in the end  it could not prove itself enough to be given a real second chance.

Currently, PV industry is way ahead in terms of price and deployment. That has turned out to be the real DISRUPTION in the solar industry and will continue to lead the way for a more solarized and cleaner world.