Renewables: the future is here

Home-based solar systems or local energy units built with solar panels, batteries and computers will give rise to a new energy infrastructure that will become mainstream

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

As I write this, we are on the cusp of a green energy revolution.

Solar power is already cheaper than coal in most parts of the world and it’s likely to be the cheapest form of energy everywhere by the end of the decade. 2016 saw solar bids starting with $64 (around Rs4,300) per MWh in Rajasthan in the first quarter and crashing to $29.10 per MWh in Chile by August. Services in the city of Las Vegas are now powered entirely by renewable energy. In May, Portugal ran continuously on renewable energy for four-and-a-half days. Costa Rica barely used any fossil fuels in 2016. Tesla began manufacturing lithium ion batteries from its Gigafactory. Since 2010, Li+ battery costs have dropped at an astonishing 15-16% per year and could go down to as low as $150 by 2020, if not earlier. 2017 could be the watershed year for super-efficient solar panels.

These are encouraging trends which hold out optimism for a green and decarbonized world.

In the not-so-distant future, we will witness a breakthrough in low-carbon energy resources usage, a dramatic increase in the energy-efficiency of buildings, factories, appliances, gadgets, devices, etc., and an explosion in the electrification of the economy, from transportation to industry.

Intermittency in wind and solar generation, a big hurdle for the propagation and adoption of renewable energy (RE), will be handled by “self-thinking” smart grids controlling geographically dispersed but interconnected wind, solar and water resources. Demand response management at the end-user level, through smart meters, will also help manage the uncertainty in RE power. Sophisticated “behind the meter” storage systems will shift consumption from peak to off-peak hours and help absorb excess RE generation, whereas utility-scale storage solutions will ensure grid stability and balancing.

Even as grids move power over massive distances, the power landscape will also be abundantly dotted with microgrids, distributed generation and distributed storage. Just like the mobile phone revolution leapfrogged fixed-line telephony in developing countries, distributed generation is all set to take a similar giant leap to electrify homes without access to electricity. Home-based solar systems or local energy units built with solar panels, batteries and computers will give rise to a new energy infrastructure that will become mainstream. The cost of this will continue to decline as technology advances. The beauty of it all is that it will provide the impoverished in developing countries accelerated access to healthcare, education, food, water, shelter and sanitation, resulting in quantum progress in human development and well-being in the coming decade.

There will be huge advances in energy-efficiency technologies and the integration of solar panels into everyday materials. Buildings will become net energy generators, with solar as the main source of energy. Solar modules on rooftops will be supplemented by solar windows and tiles. Solar windows or self-charging glasses will be adapted to self-charging mobiles, tablets and other such devices and gadgets. Who knows, even our clothes could become solar panels and charge our phones and other personal devices. Ultra-lightweight and flexible solar films will be used in rural areas and for portable projects. Solar panels are, in fact, now even being built into road surfaces, just in case we run out of empty spaces in future!

I cannot visualize a green energy future without electric cars. Half of the world’s population will be living in cities in a decade. Electric cars are imperative for keeping the city air pollution-free. China has made the switch to electric vehicles a priority. Germany has passed a law banning oil cars by 2030, Norway plans to ban fossil fuel-powered cars in 2025 and Austria wants to ban them as soon as 2020. India too has expressed a similar intent.

All this is good but it signifies a complicated change, and change is never easy. But renewable energy, and, most importantly, solar PV (photovoltaic) is to me an exponential technology—like computers, mobile phones, Internet, data storage—which is all set to disrupt the conventional energy sector. The world’s smartest minds are working round the clock on green technologies. Hardly a day passes when we don’t hear of a new innovation in renewable technology with regard to efficiency, cost, practicality, etc. Thousands of new jobs are being created every year by a clean-energy economy.

All these developments are proving sceptics of renewable energy wrong. A world powered predominantly by renewables is closer than we think.

Rahul Munjal is the chairman and managing director of Hero Future Energies

This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here

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