Solar aircraft highlights limitless energy potential
Well over a century ago, Phileas Fogg travelled Around the World in Eighty Days using multiple modes of transport. These days, millions travel across the world, guzzling aviation turbine fuel. In sharp contrast, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg have landed in Ahmedabad as part of a 35,000 kilometres flight round the world in 25 days without using a drop of fuel. The 2,300-kg Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) plane is a collaboration between ABB and Switzerland’s solar-powered aircraft project Solar Impulse. The next stop in its worldwide journey is Varanasi. The two Indian halts are intrinsically connected to prime minister Narendra Modi who is looking to create 100 GW of solar power capacity in India by 2022. That capacity would be instrumental in lighting up the 20,000 villages that are still not connected to the power grid.
Building that capacity would need an investment of $125 billion. A large chunk of solar power costs relate to servicing the debt incurred in setting up the plant. As there are no fuel costs and operating expenses are limited, solar power could help power the entire country. The big advantage for solar power is that India gets almost 70% more solar radiation than European countries. However, for solar power to take-off, prices need to come down. While current generation costs are in the region of R6-7 per kWh, it is estimated to come down to R5 per kWh if the government provides land.
Considering the trouble that the government is facing to get the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill 2015 through Parliament, that will continue to be a problem area. However, this is where innovative thinking will help. Already solar panels have been installed on the Narmada Canal in Gujarat. One way out quickly is to mandate setting up solar panels on the rooftops of government-owned buildings. As this spreads, it will lead to reduced expenses for government departments. The increased demand will lead to lower prices in the future. Another way out would be to set up solar panels on the roofs of the over 7,100 railway stations that dot the countryside. In small towns, the railway solar panels could well meet the needs of not just that station but also the areas immediately around it. This could lead to setting up of solar power parks once there is greater ease in acquiring land. There is no doubt that the only way all of India can get hooked to the grid is using solar power. The quicker the government moves on it, the better it is for the unconnected masses.