Should we continue to use our mobile devices only to make phone calls? Most people would fiercely contest that suggestion. Public policies are being formed around how to leverage its reach for unprecedented social change. New businesses are born and existing ones adapting, simply because of the possibilities that this device opens up for them and their consumers.
Yet when electricity is talked about, most people perhaps unwittingly miss the “Game Changing” potential of distributed power generation and use. If solar can generate power almost anywhere, should we still limit where it should? It follows,
logically; if power consumption is distributed wouldn’t it be better if electricity generation is too?
Distributed generation offers significant benefits to consumers while adding much needed resiliency over an electric grid based on a traditional centralized generation.
A grim advocate for this much needed resilience is the recent earthquake in Nepal and parts of India. If electricity wasn’t disrupted due to the falling towers and if power was locally generated; primary light, basic communication and clean drinking water, critical for survival while relief is awaited, could have been available and hundreds of lives may have been saved. Large towers, long cables, many sub-stations, susceptible distribution poles etc. are as much danger to themselves as to others in such calamities and are always the first to give way leaving hundreds, thousands and even millions powerless.
Distributed power generation also offers the benefit of producing electricity onsite, thereby reducing the need to build new transmission capacity while eradicating most of the technical losses and chances of theft (up to 60% in some states in India) that the larger grid cannot avoid.
Naturally modern distributed power generation systems are being used in wide ranging applications from small household, to rural communities to large commercial and industrial use. Given its techno-commercial viability a surge in distributed power generation over the next decade on the back of the expanded deployment of renewable energy is eminent.
Enter Distributed Solar PV Systems
Of the possible solutions solar is the only truly distributed electricity source and thus the key driver of widespread deployment of the natural-fit distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) power systems.
Distributed solar Power Generation leads this transformation not only because it is abundant and sustainable but also because it is unique and highly configurable. While most other sources of electricity generate energy spinning turbines, Solar PV converts sunlight directly into electricity.
- This “technical” difference is enormously consequential since, a solar power generation system
- Has no moving part, so operation and maintenance is about basic cleaning.
- Requires no fuel. Once the initial investment is paid off, the power produced is free.
- Generates power without any pollution.
Solar PV’s unique way of generating power has another important consequence: it can be highly distributed. Although states focus on big solar — constructing fields of panels—solar can also scale down to feet, even inches. Anywhere there is sunlight, which is in most places where humans are or can be settled, it can be harvested for power.
Though adoption of solar power was primarily driven by government incentives, sharp fall in cost of distributed solar power systems is driving adoption by small and large consumers of power. Solar power is no longer perceived a hobby of environmentalists with lots of money, in fact people get it not to save the planet, but because it’s a good deal.
A recent report by the investment bank HSBC, for example,”…anticipates that the dropping price of solar power and battery technology will rapidly make distributed solar systems cheaper than traditional grid power…” trending news about Tesla’s introduction of battery based energy storage systems for more than just households is a huge step towards mass adoption of distributed solar power generation systems. Navigant Research forecasts that, from 2013 to 2018, distributed solar PV installed will represent $540.3 billion in revenue. Another analysis of the same dynamic by UBS anticipated that “…this trend could render the construction of new centralized power plants irrelevant…”
“The electric power industry has a chance to leapfrog from a financial and engineering model that relies on large centralized power plants to one that is more diverse – both in sources of location of generation and ownership of the generation assets,”
This transition to a distributed solar power generation system will produce evolution of both technologies and business practices. Those that resist will at first drag and then dissolve.
What else is driving Distributed Solar?
Capital Woes; Large power plants are not easy to turn off or turn on. Companies that invest in thermal power projects, for example, have to “win” coal mines to feed these giant plants. Setting up plants, developing mines, relocating communities, managing environmental impact is a capital-intensive and long drawn out misadventure. Even when completed the price at which these large plants can sell electricity to consumers is bound and limited by geo-political landscape and red-tapism. Thus in recent times these large plants are finding it tough to raise funds — not just to operate or develop mines, but to run daily operations as well — as lenders have become wary of their ability to payback in light of rising costs and reducing margins. Power industry already accounts for most of their bad loans. Similar problems wrought all other forms of large scale power generation investments. Even large solar farms risk similar issues in light of the capacity and intent of the state utility to keep paying higher cost for power generation. Their “Creative Financing” today could in time explode leaving us debt ridden with blackened faces.
Supply Woes; India is already the world’s third largest buyer of coal and coal imports jumped 33.5 percent in the last fiscal. A large portion of India’s annual coal needs is supplemented by imports. This puts pressure on our balance of trade and risks making our growth highly dependent on outside factors.
Social Woes; According to recent news, as many as 63 thermal power projects, worth 57 Gigawatts (GWs), are running behind schedule across the country. Critical to the infrastructure, these overruns – at a time when the country is facing a power shortage of 30 GW – could cripple the economic growth of the country. Issues like land acquisition, frequent hartals, contractual disputes, tiff with villagers and slow civil works are to be blamed these delays. Even when these large plants materialize, transmission and commercial (AT&C) losses are between 26-70 percent of generation.
These systemic and social problems aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. And the longer we wait the higher the cost of sitting around doing nothing. Rather than keeping your fingers crossed and hoping for the best, consumers are taking matters into their own hands, Get Solar and Get Going!
Distributed Solar Powers Village Micro-grids
Hundreds of millions of people in India still lack access to centrally-generated electricity, and live without power or rely on diesel generators and kerosene.
Just as the advent of cell phones enabled villagers to communicate with the outside world by bypassing the conventional landline network, distributed solar has the potential to bypass the national power grid with its fraught distribution network.
Distribute Solar Power Generation is best suited for electrifying remote and often inaccessible communities throughout India. This electrification can be done without investing in costly transmission and distribution network. And as the needs of these communities grow, incremental solar power capacity can easily be added.
Distributed and rooftop solar has arisen as a viable strategy and effective alternative to waiting around for their governments to connect them to the electrical grid.
Future is Bright and Sunny
As consumers look for options and traditional utilities compensate losses by hiking rates to maintain their infrastructure and business models, it is bound to have a snowball effect. Even more consumers will push back and install their own captive solar power generation solutions.
Only solar PV has the potential to be minutely distributive and eventually diffuse into and become a pervasive and unremarkable feature of the built environment.
That will make for a far, far more resilient energy system than today’s grid, which can be brought down by cascading failures emanating from a single point of vulnerability, a single line or substation. Distributed solar power solutions are smarter and more efficient, not only in the incremental ways current technologies are, but in stepwise, nonlinear ways, replacing entire centralized grid dependent systems rather than parts.
We will find that in energy, as in so many other natural and human systems, distributed power works better, than the concentrated kind. If solar power keeps further evolving along the lines that it has been, its unique properties will propel it to dominance. Distributed solar power generation will grow not because people want to save the world, but because more people want to save money.
About the Author:
Abhishek Gupta, is President- Sunipod and a solar energy patriot, leading awareness programs to help institutional adoption of solar power as a cost appropriate means to achieve business excellence social cognizance in India. Sunipod India, manufactures key components used in solar power generation and provides turnkey project development solutions