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Sunny India needs German solar technology

solar_panelDuring her day’s sojourn in India earlier this month on the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, held inter-governmental consultations, quite unusually, at the cabinet level. Such cabinet-level discussions are held with very few countries. India is the first Asian country with which such discussions have been held. About half a dozen ministers accompanied her with the intentions of further expanding and intensifying economic cooperation between the two countries. Germany is the largest trading partner of India in the European Union.

Although, the discussions were slated to be held on cooperation in building up and modernising India's infrastructure, development of renewable and conventional energy, etc., the two countries signed pacts for cooperation in the areas of education, research and nuclear physics. India did not, apparently, seek cooperation in solar energy, currently a strong point of German industry. The Chancellor utilised the trip for canvassing for support for Christine Lagarde, the French Finance Minister, for appointment to the top IMF post and pushing for multi-million dollar deal on the sale of 126 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to India.

While she was in India a report appeared in the newspapers that Germany had decided to phase out all its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. This happened to be in glaring contrast to the statement of India’s Prime Minister that by 2020 the country expected to raise the installed nuclear power capacity to 20000 MW (as against the current around 6000 MW) in an effort to “meet its emission targets”. India has been going hard at negotiating agreements with various countries for establishment of nuclear power plants after it signed the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.  However, post Fukushima many rich and industrialised countries, including those in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are having a re-think about nuclear power. Angela Merkel, herself a nuclear power enthusiast, after Fukushima has, apparently, heeded the very widely shared concern in Germany about the hazards of nuclear power and has gone by the recommendations of a panel she appointed to consider the question in depth. Presumably on India’s insistence, however, the German Chancellor agreed to help India in areas relating to nuclear safety. The Chancellor also said that her country would ensure that the safety standards of Indian nuclear power plants are of world class. She went on to add that Germany would help India achieve a “broad energy base” and help in development of renewable energy.

Obsessed with costly, unsustainable and hazardous nuclear power as the current Indian government is, it seems it failed to raise in its talks with the Germans the matter of providing assistance in solar energy. During Merkel’s earlier visit in 2007 a series of agreements were signed which included, among others, enlarging the ties in environmental technology. Somehow, India has failed to tap the German expertise in alternative energy, especially solar energy. Barring seminars and presentations made by German experts and entrepreneurs no headway has been made in this direction. I recall having read a report of a visit by representatives of German solar technology companies to Kolkata in 2010 as part of Renewable Energy Export Initiative initiated by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology and jointly executed by the Berlin-based Renewables Academy and the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce. The excitement generated by the delegation somehow dissipated with the initiative, seemingly, fizzling out.

One wonders as to why the Indian government has not been interested in making use of German expertise in solar energy. Quite incredibly, the mostly cloudy Germany today is a powerhouse of solar power. With an average of only 1500 hours of sunshine and around 60 sunny days in a year, the country has become a world leader in solar power. As the world’s sixth biggest emitter of carbon Germany is trying to slash its carbon emissions and wants renewable sources to supply a quarter of its energy needs by 2020.  It has almost half of the world’s solar installations and it has gone ahead of everyone in production of photovoltaic cells. A law adopted in 2000 requires the country's huge power utility companies to subsidize the solar start-ups by buying their electricity at marked-up rates that makes it easy for the newcomers to turn a profit. Their green power enters the grid for sale to consumers. The law was part of a broader measure adopted by the German government to boost production of energy from renewable sources.

Germany seems to have embraced solar technology not just for its environmental benefits. German firms that manufacture photovoltaic (PV) panels and other components have prospered under the new Renewable Energy Act and have spectacularly boosted generation not only of solar power but also of employment. The German solar PV industry installed 7,400 MW from nearly one-quarter million individual systems in 2010, and there is now 16,500 MW of solar PV capacity on line in Germany. Solar PV provided 12 TWh (billion kilowatt-hours) of electricity in 2010 - about 2% of total electricity. The country’s solar thermal industry, however, has not been doing so well because of the recent economic slump. Although in 2009 a demonstration solar thermal tower went online near Cologne, yet this industry has had to lay off people. The photovoltaic industry, however, has been doing exceedingly well and has around 40000 employees. The country’s thriving solar technology industry has been looking for markets in the US, China, India and Pakistan.

India has vast solar power potential, far more than that of generally overcast Germany. With about 300 sunny days (as against 60 of Germany) and about 3000 sunshine hours per year even despite three monsoon months (as against 1500 in Germany) India can produce, estimates indicate, solar (photovoltaic) power enough to outstrip the domestic electricity demand in 2015 by as much as a thousand times, even if the efficiency of PV modules is taken as mere 10%, though currently their general efficiency is almost twice as much.

True, producing solar (photovoltaic) power is, presently, a costly proposition but with time, R&D and assisted proliferation the costs will surely come down. Initially, like in Germany, the government may have to subsidise solar power to make it affordable. Importantly, it will be energy with zero emission and will help set at rest the Prime Minister’s unease about meeting India’s, as of now, self-imposed  emission targets.

In any case, nuclear power, too, is not cheap, with its high capital cost and costs on measures for several safeguards including those relating to environment and security as also high costs on radio-active waste disposal. Reports have indicated that the nuclear power lobby in India has consistently lied and understated costs to make nuclear power look economically viable and for making it attractive for those in power. Lately, even some of the European countries have been facing delay and consequential cost overruns in installation of nuclear power plants. Notably, as far back as in 2003 Belgium decided to phase out its seven reactors supplying 60% of its energy needs after 40 years of use as the energy produced by them was far too expensive. Besides, the perennial safety concerns kept nagging the administration. Post Fukushima, however, tables have been turned on nuclear energy in most parts of the world, including the industrialised OECD countries and China. However, India seems to be the only country which refuses to see the hazards of nuclear power despite its vulnerability of its nuclear installations.

Having articulated the ambition of generating 20 GW solar power (against current measly 10 MW) by 2020 and having progressively established a special relationship with Germany, it would be worth India’s while to seriously take the standing German offer of assistance in renewable energy. The synergy between German expertise in solar power and sunny India needs to be exploited for the mutual benefit of both.

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