A puzzling review

Prem Shankar Jha | Updated on: Nov 11, 2018

Author Prem Shankar Jha responds to M Ramesh’s review of his book, ‘Dawn of the Solar Age’

My attention was drawn recently to the review of my book Dawn of the Solar Age – An end to Global Warming and to Fear , by M Ramesh, titled “A Confused Response to Climate Change”. Readers — and reviewers in particular —are entitled to their opinions, but the sheer importance of the issue this book deals with has prompted me to respond to its contents.

The IPCC’s recent Special Report has only confirmed what every respected climate scientist has been warning the global community against for the past ten years: that if the world as we know it today is to survive, then global warming must be restricted not to 2oC rise but 1.5oC. The very least that requires is for the world to stop using fossil fuels by 2055.

Today no one believes that this is possible, so many (including the Wall Street Journal ), have decided that attacking climate science is the best form of defence against global warming. Since there are barely half-dozen books (in 21,000 on global warming and climate change) that put forward a message of hope I was disappointed to see that your reviewer did not consider the technologies and proposals put forward in it worthy of serious consideration, but labeled them as confused, evangelical and curious.


Ramesh has also dismissed my central thesis that only two of the 18 or so renewable energy technologies that have been explored during the past four decades — concentrated Solar Thermal , as opposed to wind and photovoltaic power, and the conversion of biomass into transport fuels have the capacity to fully replace fossil fuels in the provision of power, process heat and transport fuels..

I found that surprising because the reasons that I have highlighted in my book are, ultimately, truisms – that the sun does not shine at night; that wind power is erratic and available mostly in summer while the demand for electricity peaks in winter; and that neither alone, nor together can they meet more than a fraction of humanity’s need, which is for 24-hour power, and process heat, on demand.

I am also at a loss to understand Ramesh’s dismissive comment that there isn’t a great deal about Solar in a book that claims to describe the dawn of the solar age. I could of course, have said a lot more. But the book is intended for the general reader. Its purpose is to spread a message of hope where there is at present only a growing anxiety, and mulish disbelief. Solar Photovoltaic, nevertheless, is described, and its limitations analysed, in not one but two chapters. I have also described in some detail the teething troubles that Solar Thermal power has faced, and the vital need to learn from the experience of the pioneers. In any case, all the detailed information that specialists may want is flagged in the tables, and more than 40 endnotes.

The greater part of my book is devoted to understanding why technologies that can not only arrest global warming but make the world an unrecognizably better place have been so systematically ignored when they have been around for forty to a hundred years. The only explanation I could find was a collective amnesia induced in all of us by our uncritical acceptance of the virtues of the market economy.

This may be too novel an idea for most people to digest, and Ramesh seems to be one of them. Hence his accusation that I am “ waging a war against the profit motivated free market”. This is the opposite of the message of the book, which is that the colossal amounts of investment required by the shift out of fossil fuels can only be mobilized if the investment is profitable. And to ensure this we need to guide the market into the decisions that are needed to save it.

What is standing in the way of a more rapid adoption of the technologies I have described is not doubts about their viability, but a vicious struggle for supremacy that has broken out between the votaries of different renewable energy technologies( such as solar PV versus Solar Thermal). This is a direct product of a a chaotic, unregulated global free market, not of capitalism per se.

Coming to specifics, Ramesh highlights three supposed errors in my book.. The first is my assumption that all SPV power cells require rare metals—notably Tellurium and Cadmium – when in fact 95 percent of the cells in use today are made of monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon. The second is my statement that ‘private investor interest in Solar Thermal power is rising’. The third is my (laughable) assertion that India has set aside 40,000 km2 for a Solar park in the Thar desert, when the Badhla solar park covers only 40 km2.

As regards the first I was not talking about the present ‘stock’ of grid –based SPV plants, but future additions to it. This is certain to be determined by costs, and profitability, not efficiency. Polycrystalline silicon cells have replaced mono-crystalline cells because although they are less efficient they are disproportionately cheaper to produce.

But thin film cells using Tellurium and Cadmium are doing the same to poly-crystalline silicon cells, as those did to mono-crystalline cells, because they require even less silicon, and therefore much less energy to produce. On top of that in 2015 the US firm First Solar announced that its Cd-Te cells had attained a cell efficiency of 22.5, and that it hoped to get to a panel efficiency of over 21 percent in two years. It is not surprising therefore that Cd-Te cell-based SPV power plants have gone from zero to 5 percent in just two years. Their share is bound to continue rising.

As for ‘private investors’ growing interest in CSP power generation’, Gemasolar was followed by three large CSP- solar tower power plants of 110 to 340 MW generating capacity in the US, (one of which ran into considerable teething troubles because it did not use molten salt as the heat conductor as Gemasolar had done). Since then very large CSP plants have come up, or are coming up in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Australia, Dubai, and Chile. Their feed-in tariff has fallen from 31 cents per kwh in the first plants in Spain, to 15.6 cents in Morocco, to 9 cents in Saudi Arabia, to 6.3 cents in Dubai. They are now down to under 5 cents in three 24 hour power plants being constructed in the Atacama desert in Chile.

The investor – US based Solar Reserve — is in the planning stage of a 2,000 MW 24-hour CSP plant in Nevada that will sell power at around 6 cents per kwh . This will deliver as much power as a 10,000MW solar PV plant.

Ramesh’s assertion that the cost of SPV power in India has now fallen to ₹2.44 is not strictly correct. The Madhya Pradesh government, which invited bids at ₹2.50 a unit has received very few offers, and none from well-known companies. But there is a more important omission in the calculation of cost. The SPV power delivered through the national grid comes within five to six hours of the day. The grid, which is already delivering conventional power cannot absorb this giant gasp of power and has to becaked down, to accommodate it.

Backing up a coal based or nuclear power plant power plant costs ₹2 per kwh. The true cost of SPV power supplied at a feed-in tariff of ₹2.50 per unit is ₹4.50, and will rise as more and more SPV or wind power is fed into the national grid. Eventually one may see in India the revolt of conventional power suppliers that has stymied the development of solar power in Spain and forced other European governments to tax surplus roof top power being fed by home owners into the grid.

Finally, I hate to disappoint Ramesh, but I did not confuse 40 km2 with 40,000 km2 of the Thar desert. As part of UPA-1‘s energy policy, framed in 2005, the Rajasthan government had set aside 35,000 km2 of the Thar desert as a solar Reserve. I admit that a ‘Solar Reserve’ is not the same thing as a ‘Solar Park’, and that I should have used the former term. But the difference is largely semantic. The former becomes the latter only when the infrastructure of roads, power lines and water supply has been provided. But the land has to be set aside first. Badhla is only the first ‘park’ set up within the Rajasthan Solar Reserve. It must not be the last.

Published on November 11, 2018

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

You May Also Like

Recommended for you