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Solar: The technology beyond politics

According to reports, the word ‘solar’ has taken on a lot of new meanings and implications in recent times, especially in Kerala. But in most other parts of the world, it is still more popular as an economical, viable and non-polluting alternative to traditional sources of energy. Let me explore a bit into the latter, lest the scientific aspects of it should be drowned in the political swamp.

The first solar cell was demonstrated in the late 1800s, while Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for explaining the Photoelectric Effect. I first saw solar power being used on a solar calculator. Unlike a battery powered calculator, this one needed significant light to work, ideally by placing it near a window. Then I came across a solar lantern.It came with a solar panel, which was roughly 2 ft X 2 ft in area, and about 2 inches thick. Then, solar water heaters made an appearance. At least in the initial stages, that was always a drawback of solar energy – the sheer size of the panels required to draw meaningful amounts of energy made it non-viable. It is said that 20,000 wafers of silicon are required to generate 0.5 V of electricity. The normal AA (pen-torch) battery gives you 1.5 V, if you want to compare. In short, to generate a lot of electricity, you need a lot of free area on which to place solar panels. Theoretically, it is estimated that India should be able to produce about 5000 Petawatt per year based on the amount of sunlight that reaches the land alone. But then, we can’t cover our entire land with solar panels, can we? Large expanses of deserts are a good option for this.This is why Gujarat and Rajasthan figures prominently on the solar energy map of India, along with Tamil Nadu and much of Central India. Land being a scarce resource in Kerala, we will need some other means to set up large scale solar units in our state. Of late, there have been solar panels set up on the roofs of railway stations and other public buildings, which is a good way to make the most of whatever space is available.So why don’t we put up solar panels across the large tracts of unused land in the countryside? There are a few problems with that logic. First of all, the infrastructure needed for solar energy (the panels, etc) is expensive. It is important to keep the panels clean, so that the sunlight can reach the parts that matter. Imagine the effort required to brush the dust off such huge panels on a regular basis! Also, while the power generation process itself is not polluting, the construction and installation of solar panels of such size obviously requires factories that involve a lot of the conventional evils like polluting fuels, chemical wastes, etc. And the most important aspect to be considered is the longevity of the solar power generation system.

Once in every 25-30 years, the entire panel system needs to be replaced. That too costs money. Another problem that is probably unique to Kerala is something that cropped up quite recently. After the much publicised scam, will any company really dare to approach customers with solar power projects? If they do, will customers dare to accept them as genuine and invest in them? Let’s hope that a few irresponsible companies don’t give the genuine ones a bad name.Once these problems are taken care of, solar power is actually a fantastic source of energy. There is this giant battery in the sky, and all we need to solve all our energy needs is a means to plug into it. Once we figure that out, all the solar powered cars and the solar powered houses and townships (rare, but yes they exist) can come into the mainstream and be the rule rather than the exception!

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