Softdisk Solar
The Sun is 'Indeed' Bright

SPV (solar photovoltaics) offer tremendous growth potential to a country like ours. Barack Obama has announced a programme to create five million new jobs by investing $150 billion over the next 10 years, to catalyse private efforts to build a clean energy future. Where does India stand in this field? As in so many areas of national endeavour, it was Nehru who was the pioneer protagonist of solar energy. Indira Gandhi gave a big push in the 1970s and 1980s, and Narasimha Rao in the 1990s. R&D (research and development) and prototype development on solar electricity generating systems (called solar photovoltaics, or SPV for short) had started at the NPL (National Physical Laboratory) as far back as 1955, at Nehru’s instance. Small SPV lighting systems were developed and field proven, as were solar cookers.

However, solar energy did not catch on till around 1975 because cost effective materials and technologies for terrestrial applications did not then exist anywhere in the world. Till 1973, SPV power sources were only used to power earth satellites. It was the first ‘oil shock’ of 1973 that brought solar cells to earth! The early R&D and prototype development was undertaken by major international US oil companies Arco Solar & Exxon Solar with massive funding by the US government. Thanks to a major initiative by Indira Gandhi, an SPV R&D programme was also nucleated in our public sector company, CEL (Central Electronics Ltd), as early as 1976, just threefour years after Arco Solar.

Over the last 30 years, we have undertaken a sustained scientific, technological, industrial, commercial, and governmental effort to promote and build up SPV applications, industry and R&D. Consequently, we now have a large and diversified SPV industry consisting of 10 fully vertically integrated SPV manufacturers making solar cells, solar panels, and complete SPV systems, and about 50 assemblers of various kinds. Between them these companies make and supply about 200 MW per year of 30 different types of SPV systems in three categories: rural, remote-area, and industrial. We also have at least six centres of R&D in government laboratories and IITs.

CEL was the world’s first in 1985 to design, develop, engineer, and manufacture SPV power systems for powering a large amount of electronics on the offshore oil well-head platforms of ONGC in Bombay High.

Today, some 60 such platforms have been ‘solarised’ by CEL. The world’s second manufacturer of such SPV systems, BP Solar of the UK in the Persian Gulf, but only in 1990. CEL has done likewise for special-tech, ultra lightweight SPV man-pack battery chargers for wireless communication sets for our jawans all over the country, but particularly in Siachen where they have to work continuously on a ‘fail-safe basis’ at temperatures as low as minus 40 °C and in the Thar desert where they have to do likewise at (plus) 55 °C. Over the years, CEL has supplied about 16000 such solar chargers to our army and also selectively exported them. There is no other company making such chargers anywhere in the world and they have also been internationally patented. CEL has also exported many types of its SPV systems to some dozen other developing countries. It has also set up manufacturing plants in Syria, Sudan, and Kenya in competition with Western SPV companies and made substantial profits on those projects.

Taken as a whole, we are among the top five countries in SPV energy and number one in many areas. At 2.8 million as of 31 March 2008, the total number of stand-alone SPV systems of the 30 different types our companies have manufactured, installed, commissioned, and operationalized is by far the largest number of SPV systems set up by and installed in any one countryand almost all based on Indian technology. Most of these systems are installed and operating in a developing country’s rural or remote areas. This uniquely requires that they be reliable and rugged enough from design to commissioning to operate on a ‘fit and forget’ basis.

Apart from such stand-alone SPV power sources meant for remote area rural and industrial applications, the MNES/MNRE programme has, over the last decade, involved a large number of public grid and local grid based SPV power plants having capacities ranging from 5 kW to 200 kW, for a diverse range of usersfrom the two buildings of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation at Chennai where there is no conventional grid supply at all, to the main building of the R&D Engineers of DRDO at Pune, to the Maharshi Centre in Nagpur.

Several pilot projects have also been undertaken by our SPV manufacturers of specially designed, grid-connected 100 kW power plants at the front end of conventional grids for peak shaving and at the tail end for voltage stabilization. They are working well and generating valuable data for the design of future systems. The use of SPV for such applications is in its infancy even in the industrialized countries.

A major success story in the use of SPV power on a local grid is that of Sagar Island in the Sunderbans in West Bengal. The Mission, ‘Sagar Island Solar Island’, was inaugurated in December 1996. It consisted of providing high-quality, 50-cycle 220-volt solar-derived electricity for home and street lighting and solar pumps to all the 12000 homes on the island through a local grid, and powering a large fish freezing plant through a windSPV hybrid power plant. With a steady and sustained programme of adding modules from 20 kW to 120 kW, a solar power-generating capacity of 500 KW was operationalized by end-2000; another 500 kW has since been set up.

The SPV panels and the complex electronic power conditioning systems for all the 25 kW power modules have been supplied against tenders floated by the WBREDA (West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency) by six of our major SPV manufacturers, based entirely on local know-how, while the overall system design and engineering was done by WBREDA. Sagar is the only totally SPV island in the world. The cost of the generated power is Rs 10/kWh, but the villagers on Sagar, knowing fully well that they will never get electricity by any other means, are paying Rs 7/kWh while the West Bengal government is covering the Rs 3/kWh gap through a subsidy.

S.Vignesh

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