Manoj Misra

Energy

Introduction

The article gives information regarding solar enery which is one of the clean energy sources. In the coming years when the non- renewable sources will exhaust the clean energy sources will help in making us energy independent.

Recounting

Ghrrrh ghrrrh and chhapaak still reverberate in my sub-conscience. Sound of the spinning wheel (ghirri) as the rope around it conveyed the steel bucket down the well and when the bucket hit the water with a splash. I, then a 5 yr old, was often at one end of the rope with a bucket on the other. Of course my two Mamas managed the entire process of lifting water from the well as and when Bibi (nani) demanded it. We were tenants in a traditional two storied house owned by a Mahant ji who lived alone on the ground floor.

It was Vrindavan, now some six decades down the memory lane and the well was accessed from the roof of the house. Needless to say that water was never in short supply but always sparingly used with little wastage since lifting it at will wasn’t too exciting a chore for my Mamas with me in token attendance. As much as I recall we were totally water independent for piped water supplies were still at least a decade away. How piped water supplies turned us from water independence to total water dependence whence kids of today have no clue wherefrom (except the tap) their water comes is another story for another time.

Imagine a day when we would likewise access our energy requirement at will and independently? The day may not be far off once roof top solar and currently incipient practice of household’s seeking “off-gridding” becomes commonplace making Thomas Alva Edison, the father of electric bulb and many other inventions, pat his back in his grave. It was he who in 1931 crystal gazed and said to Henry Ford “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!….., Ironically it was Henry Ford who after failure with an electric car, led the gasoline run four wheeler revolution and helped the dawn of fossil fuels as the driver of 20th century transportation and industrialization.

But even Edison could hardly have visualized a day like now when solar power would compete and out bid fossil fuel as a stable source of electricity production.   

Solar Energy

Interestingly, the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has recently launched its Surya (Solar) Nutan Stove, which at scale could make cooking gas companies idle. Solar water heaters are already replacing electric geysers in homes and hotels. Future appears very solar bound, for solar is indeed the most reliable flag bearer of the renewable energy band wagon. But great caution is advised. 

Surya Nutan cooking system
Solar Nutan Stove

24X7 solar power supplies depend on efficient and reliable storage (read batteries) which gets charged during the 12 hours of daylight when the sun shines. Solar cells will have to become super sensitive to even a hint of daylight when the sun is hidden behind clouds during the rainy and gloomy winter days. Also these cells shall need to adapt to changing weather patterns thanks to the uncertainties associated with climate change. But technology we are told is a great saviour and shall surely rise to the occasion.

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Solar Panels

But solar panel, the very foundation of solar energy has a material cost in primarily silicon, derived from rocks, sand, clays and soils rich in either silicon oxide or silicates. So mining followed by physical and chemical processes are involved. Now imagine the scale once billions of solar panels would need to be produced to feed the growing demand. Sand the most popular source of silicon is already under severe assault from the construction industry. Moreover a solar panel has a finite life span of 15-20 years. So down the road we are looking at not just the production of massive number of solar panels but also challenges of dealing with the growing number of retired panels.

Since batteries are going to be the mainstay of reliable solar energy package, there shall be the same issues to confront with them as we do today with any other battery. Pollution from leakage, finite life and replacement challenges. Batteries for their manufacture also have a significant material cost.

While hopefully the ‘water independence’ from my childhood duplicated in energy terms in form of rooftop solar installations and off gridding shall result in almost universal energy independence, the current craze led by national policies and corporatisation of massive solar installations a la those seen at insolation rich locations like deserts and other open spaces on land and seas carry significant biodiversity costs.

Pitfall of Clean Energy

The classic example in India is the threatened future of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) which is already an endangered species. Once a fairly widespread bird it is now restricted to few locations in western Rajasthan and Gujarat in habitats which are also the favoured locations for the installation of solar and wind farms spread over huge areas.

GIB is a large terrestrial flying bird and the issue is not just with the usurpation by these energy farms of its habitat but also the risk of their electrocution by colliding with the overhead transmission lines. The said risk is limited not just to the GIB. Surveys conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Thar covering 80 km of power lines repeated 7 times over a year found 289 carcasses of around 40 bird species including the Great Indian Bustard (GIB).1  

Clearly the so-called  ‘clean’ and ‘reliable’ solar energy thanks to the RE revolution is not risk free. So when we look upon them as the energy sources of the future let us be aware of their pitfalls too.  

Conclusion

It is certainly time to resort to clean energy sources like the Solar but we must also as a nation first properly assess the nation’s real energy needs for a comfortable, low carbon, low water and CC resilient lifestyles avoiding aping blindly the unsustainable high energy lifestyles of the so called ‘developed’ west and then determine if we really need to go for these mega solar farms with gigantic transmission lines at great financial and ecological costs? Amen! 

This article was published on The Dialogue as Crystal Gazing into Energy Independence – The RE Revolution on August 22,2022

Read another by Manoj Misra – Worlds Oldest And Still Functioning Dam: The Story of Raja Bhoj and its Mandideep ‘Island‘ in IMPRI insights

Read another piece by Manoj Misra- Reducing Water Footprint in Electricity Production in IMPRI insights

Read another piece by Manoj Misra- Deserts and Ravines are not Wastelands in IMPRI insights

YouTube: Watch Manoj Mishra at IMPRI #PlanetTalks on Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) – A Flawed and Avoidable Concept

About the author

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Manoj Misra, a former member of the Indian Forest Service (IFS), and Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Living Yamuna Campaign) a civil society consortium. Member of Water Conflicts Forum and the India Rivers Forum, Organising Committee.