When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Tesla Motors headquarters near San Francisco last week, he was almost reading the writing on the wall, that solar is going to be the fuel of this century. At Tesla, Modi was not really looking to bring the technology behind Elon Musk’s highly successful, but extremely expensive, cars to India. In fact, the Indian delegation had its eyes on his Powerwall and how this solar battery could help us tap one resource we have in abundance. The $3000 Tesla Powerwall, or any similar concept, could help make a lot of Indian households self-sufficient in their energy needs at least for most of the year.
The Powerwall now costs $3000 upwards without the panels in the US. According to some reports, power generated by the rig would be at least double what regular customers pay in the US per KW. But all that could change and very soon.
Solar power is nothing new to the world and even India has used it for a few decades. Mass adoption, on the other hand, has been prevented by the prohibitive costs that we mentioned before. However, according to academic Vivek Wadhwa, the pace at which solar technology is advancing now a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs can be met by solar in 14 years.
“The price is dropping 20 per cent every year and in 2020 prices will be half of what it is today,” says Wadhwa adding that with solar panels on every roof and affordable battery backup things could change dramatically in India by then. “Those homes will not need the power grid any more,” he says, adding that this is a revolution that will happen from the ground up and despite political will and government policy. Wadhwa is also predicting a lot of local innovation happening around the cheaper solar batteries, like people coming up with concept cars that can drive a 100km on a single charge. The possibilities seem endless and its impact on traditional business models like the petroleum sector, almost unfathomable at the moment.
If you want to see what all can be done, or at least thought of, with solar technology, you don’t have to look much far away from the Tesla Headquarters in Palo Alto. Just a few miles away is the Facebook Headquarters where they are looking at solar to get everyone in the world connected. How, you might wonder. Facebook is looking at solar powered unmanned aircraft to hover over the earth’s surface and beam down Internet signals to a 100-sqkm area below.
Well, it is not science fiction and I got to see video of the first prototype, Aquila, with the wingspan of a Boeing 737. Yael Macguire of Facebook’s connectivity lab says the idea is for these aircraft to be airborne for months at a time and ensure their block of land below is connected all the time. This kind of thinking will not be possible with aircraft kept afloat by conventional fuels and that is where solar is changing the way future technologies will work.
While it is easy for a Facebook to think of solar as a solution, the costs of the panels alone will put off most people now. This is where cutting edge research comes into the picture. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Prof Chennupati Jagadish of the Australian National University in Canberra. He was leading a team of researchers trying to fix the problem of expensive solar panels by creating small high efficiency photovoltaics that could replace larger solar panels.
The idea was to capture solar rays using reflective surfaces and concentrates the power on to the smaller cells. The mirrors would be much cheaper than any solar panel, but the efficiency would be the same as having panels of a similar surface area. This was half a decade ago and a lot of these technologies have moved on to get closer to deployment.
“Research and development is a slow process and takes time. Recently, thin film solar cells based on new materials called perovskites have exceeded 20% efficiency which nobody predicted 3-4 years back. These are cheap to make. But their stability is still an issue. People are now making new perovskites to address the issue of stability. It is highly likely some breakthrough will take place in the near future,” Prof Jagadish wrote to me today.
We might be at least a couple of years away from these technologies really becoming available to people in countries like India. Till then the government could look at bringing in laws that make use of solar mandatory in some spheres, for instance in the construction of residences, houses and business establishments that cost beyond a certain limit. We could at least start cutting down on the peak time loads in summer, even before those cheap batteries come in.