The author’s almost evangelical view on solar thermal at the expense of PV and other renewable sources is curious
On December 22, 2016 — peak winter in the northern hemisphere — something odd happened on, the top of the world, the North Pole. The temperature that day was not even zero degrees. Usually temperatures at the Pole around that time would be minus 25 degrees. If that was not odd enough, consider this: the +0.4 degree C temperature measured on December 22 that year was lower than a month ago. As you are reading this, you are probably asking yourself a question: what the hell has the world gotten to?
Prem Shankar Jha’s book, titled ‘Dawn of the Solar Age’, gives the answers to that very question. Octogenarian journalist Jha must have put in extraordinary efforts researching to have densely packed its 280 pages with information. The title, though, is somewhat misleading.
The book is not about solar, in fact there isn’t a great deal about solar in it — not even in the chapter titled ‘How the Sun can change our world’. Regardless, the book provides a fund of information, on the phenomenon and perils of climate change and the various technologies on the table to combat it.
Although the book is neatly organised into 14 chapters under four parts, its fundamental flaw is it lacks a clear message to the reader. There is no ‘Conclusions’ chapter. It is almost as though the author is saying, ‘here is all the information, draw your own conclusions’.
But if you read the book thoroughly, it is possible to distil a message from it. The author’s perspective, buried in the mass of words and figures, is simple: climate change is a real and present danger, to combat it we need to eliminate fossil fuels.
The predominant technologies currently used as instruments towards that end — wind, solar PV and ethanol — are, well, of very limited use. What is needed is biomass-derived transport fuels, mainly methanol. As for the sun’s energy, solar thermal (producing electricity using sun’s heat) is the way forward, because it provides a steady supply of energy (base load).
About methanol and concentrated solar power (CSP), or solar thermal, Jha is almost evangelical, almost to the point of saying everything else is rubbish.
Lethargy in corrective action
Such a bias seems to be moored in quicksand. For example, according to Jha, “CSP plants have many intrinsic advantages over their PV (photo-voltaic, which is more commonly in use today) that lower their cost to the society, if not to the investor.”
In several places elsewhere in his book, Jha almost wages a war against profit-motivated “free market”, which he holds responsible for lethargy in corrective action against climate change. Therefore, it is not surprising that he subordinates ‘lower cost to society’ to the interests of the investor. It would have been appropriate if Jha had also suggested an alternative route to promote CSP even if it is not remunerative to the investor. The world over, CSP has lost ground to the cheaper PV due to reasons of economics. But more surprising is Jha’s next line of argument in favour of CSP: that it needs no rare earths like PV does.
According to Jha, solar photo-voltaics need tellurium and cadmium, “whose supply is severely limited”. This is patently wrong, because even during the best of times the ‘thin film’ technology that used tellurium and cadmium, accounted for 5 per cent of solar PV installations, all the rest used the ubiquitous polysilicon.
Jha’s marquee example for a solar CSP plant is the 20 MW Gemasolar plant in Spain, which uses concentric circles of heliostats to focus sunlight on to a point in a central tower to capture heat. The Gemasolar example occurs several times in the book, but at one point it really gets funny.
The author says the Gemasolar plant required 1 sq km for every 10 MW. India and China are building 97,000 MW of hydro power capacity on the Brahmaputra. If solar thermal technology is opted instead, it would call for only 9,700 sq km!
“This is a quarter of the area in the Thar Desert that India has set aside for a solar power park.” What! 40,000 sq km solar park in the Thar Desert? The Badhla solar park in the said area is spread over 40 sq km, for a capacity of 2,255 MW.
So sold out is Jha on CSP that he has dedicated an entire chapter to ‘Solar Thermal Revolution’, in which he proudly observes that in July 2013, there were solar thermal plants of 1,300 MW in operation, 2,300 MW under construction and another 31,700 MW planned.
“The economics of CSP power generation is (sic) therefore much better understood,” is his conclusion. Truth is, today global CSP capacity is a little over 5,000 MW; solar PV is a hundred times as much. Therefore, it is surprising that Jha finds “private investor interest in solar thermal power is rising rapidly”.
Furthermore, the author himself records that a Gemasolar-like solar thermal plant in India would produce power at nine cents a kWhr, (₹7), yet he says it is “beginning to compete with coal-based power.”
Also, Jha’s information is often dated. For a book that was released recently to note that “by June 2015, India had added only 3,300 MW of solar capacity to the 700 MW that existed in 2008” is rather strange. India now has over 25,000 MW of solar power and looks set to adding another 10,000 MW this year.
He says solar power has fallen to as low as ₹4.63 — they have fallen to ₹2.44. He says most of the solar projects are coming up on desert areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan; last year, most of the projects came up in Karnataka. Clearly, the data have not been updated before publication.
Jha makes a strong pitch for the use of methanol as transport fuel and wonders loudly why it has been neglected. He emphasises that methanol is much better than ethanol. His point is methanol can be produced from any organic stuff, including agricultural residue and city garbage, so unlike ethanol it doesn’t invade agricultural space.
True, methanol as an automotive fuel has many takers — eminent scientist VK Saraswat is one of them — but Jha fails to discuss the problems related to methanol, such as low energy density and some aspects of safety. There is a very interesting anecdote to how the oil majors killed the greenshoots of methanol use by bribing MIT into stopping a research project.
The book dismisses ‘wind’ in two pages, calling it too limited in scope, and electric mobility as of “questionable value” because it actually increases emissions except if the input power is derived from renewable energy. Both points are arguable.
And the book is poorly edited, for it has several grammatical and other mistakes. For instance, it speaks of the Ministry of New and Non-Renewable Energy, and describes 2.75 million MWhr as ‘2.75 GWhr’.
There is no dearth of interesting nuggets of information in the book, on climate science and its history, various technologies, Himalayan glaciers, IPCC and its mistakes and so on, but all of these have been gleaned from the public domain, there is nothing original about them.