Emerging technologies hold exciting promise for the world to tap solar power at significant scales and at costs comparable with traditional electricity. If India gives enough policy support, it can reap its riches in little more than a decade.
A new project led by Daniel Nocera at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found a way to harness and store surplus solar energy for later use when sunlight is at a premium. So far, this has been a big, costly hurdle for large scale solar power generation.
Nocera terms his solution a nirvana, as the sun’s energy can thereby be an unlimited source in reality. He says that within a decade, households can use solar photovoltaic cells (SPVs) while the sun shines, and the surplus energy can produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their fuel cells at night or on overcast days.
Another MIT project has led to a set of incremental innovations by Emanuel Sachs that can improve efficiency of SPVs by 27% and bring their capital cost to below $2 per watt. This is roughly double that of a standard coal-based power plant — a vast improvement from the multiple of three to four at present, while the “tipping point” is seen at $1.
Apart from work on SPVs of various kinds, there are advances in large-scale solar thermal generation to feed long distance through the grid transmission lines. The US is running final trials and has already commercialized some plants in its desert regions (while India is thinking of it). This raises the question when pricing can become comparable with the conventional grid-based power.
The June McKinsey Quarterly report estimates that by 2020, the price of solar electricity will have declined from 30 cents-plus per kilowatt hour to less than 10 cents. Translated roughly, that’s Rs4 per unit for India, where conventional electricity tariffs can be at Rs1.50 today.
Here’s where policy comes in — on the road to cost effectiveness, well-planned support is vital to attract investors in India just as leaders of the pack do globally. Given the danger of pressures from political lobbying, an overall renewable energy support works best. Preferential tariff for surplus feeds to the grid is a key policy tool used effectively abroad. At home, only West Bengal has taken up the new policy for feed-in tariffs while Rajasthan and Gujarat are set to follow suit.
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