Event Report: Alternate Energy Systems – Myths, Facts & Challenges

This is the full video and slides of the InnoVidya/IUCAA talk by Padmashree Paul Ratnasamy, that has helt on 23 Feb, at IUCAA.

Click “full screen” icon at the bottom right of window above to see the video in addition to the slides. If you’re unable to see the video above, click here.

(What follows is a live-blog of the talk. You should really watch the video above – read the live-blog below only if you’re too lazy to watch the full video. The live-blog below is just a collection of some of the interesting points made. It is not intended to be a full transcript, and large sections might be missing. Please forgive the typos and bad grammar.)

  • Who is the one God that we see everyday? The Sun. The Sun’s energy is so important, that it has been elevated to a God all over the world – Ra (Egypt), Tonatiuh (Aztec), Apollo (Greek), Shamash (Sumer), etc.
  • In the last 25 years, world energy consumption is going up. And it’s mostly oil, coal and gas. In spite of all the talk of biofuels and renewable energy replacing fossil fuels, we are actually using more fossil fuels every day.
  • There is a direct correlation between Energy usage per capita and GDP per capita of a country – with two important exceptions (Russia, high energy consumption, but low GDP, and Japan which has low energy consumption even though it is rich).
  • We have a problem:
    • GDP and Economic Progress depends upon greater energy use.
    • Most fuel used today is fossil fuel
    • Hence, more energy = more environment degradation
  • Historical sources of energy:
    • Muscle (human/animal) power
    • Fire (wood) / Solar (agriculture)
    • Wood; Charcoal; Coal; Wind; Water (Sails/Mills)
    • Energy Conversation technologies catalyzed the Industrial revolution:
      • Steam Engine (Factories, Ships, Trains)
      • Steel – Ships, Rails
      • etc.
    • Petroleum
    • Natural Gas
    • Nuclear
    • BioFuels
  • India’s Reserves:
    • Coal – 500+ years
    • Lignite – 1000 years
    • Crude Oil – 30 years
    • Natural Gas – 20 years
  • India’s Imports:
    • Oil: used mainly in transport (40%), industry (20%), electricity (15%), agriculture (10%)
  • India’s shortage of liquid/gas hydrocarbons is the problem. $30B of it every year is used in electricity and agriculture. Both of these can be replaced.
  • Reducing energy consumption is not an option. Because that can only be done by reducing the standard of living (and essentially going back to the stone age).
  • Today’s Fuel Usage:
    • Cooking / Lighting: Wood, Kerosene, LPG, bio gas, electricity
    • Electricity: Coal, Gas, Nuclear, Oil, Solar, Wind, Bagasse
    • Transportation: Electricity (mainly Trains), Hydrocarbon liquids (Gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, kerosene, bunker oil) from oil, coal, natural gas
  • We cannot do transportation without liquid hydrocarbons. So any “renewable energy solution” needs to tackle this problem
    • Fossil fuels have high energy density. This high energy density is needed for transportation
    • Renewable energy has low energy density.
    • Energy densities: Petrol=48MJ/kg, Coal=32, Biomass=15. This is a problem.
    • Why? Hydrocarbons are just carbon and hydrogen – and hydrogen is what gives the energy. Biomass has carbon, hydrogen and lots of oxygen. Oxygen not only does not give energy, but it consumes energy because we have to spend effort to remove it. That is why biomass energy density is much lower than hydrocarbons.
  • Example of biofuel use: We can convert sugar to LPG. A sugar mill that processes 6000 tons per day of sugar cane, will produce 70 tons of LPG per day.
  • Biofuels are not only environmentally friendly, but due to their decentralized nature, they have other major advantages:
    • Move jobs from urban to rural areas
    • Capture of energy is not catastrophic to the area where the energy is being captured. (A visit to a coal mine town will convince you of this point.)
    • Additional source of energy at point of consumption…
    • Lower distribution costs
    • Lower theft/loss during distribution
    • Security against terrorist / cyber attacks
  • Petroleum subsidy by Government of India: Diesel Rs 11 per liter, LPG Rs 33/kg, Kerosene Rs. 32/l, Petrol Rs. 1.5/l.
  • The same subsidies should be available to biofuels. This will:
    • lower the import bills
    • pump more money into the rural economy
    • reduce global warming
  • Solar Energy:
    • Major problems: It’s diffuse, it’s intermittent, it cannot be stored easily
    • Types:
      • Solar Thermal: direct heat/steam and electricity
      • Solar Photovoltaic: direct conversion to electricity. Modules last 20 to 40 years. Very little maintenance cost. Cost of installation is the only real cost.
      • Solar Bio – algae + CO2 -> algae oil -> ethanol etc.
    • Economics:
      • At $1/watt is “break-even” price for solar power
      • Prices have gone from $100/watt in 1976, to $1/watt now. So we are at break-even price
      • Now, the best solar power is competitive with the best coal power in terms of price
    • Random note: China invested in Solar R&D. Now 50% of all solar panels in India come from China
  • Fuel from municipal solid waste
    • MSW -> biogas -> heat/electricity
    • MSW -> Syngas -> ethanol/electricity
  • Summary:
    • There is no major shortage of fossil fuels at current consumption rates
    • Global Warming is the major driving force for renewable energy
    • Onshore wind is already competitive with grid (but not available everywhere)
    • Solar PV is competitive with diesel set electricity (generators, pumpsets, emergency power)
    • Biofuels meet specifications for transportation fuels
    • Technology Challenges:
      • Improve Solar/Wind energy storage efficiency
      • Reduce capital expenses of solar/biofuels
  • Strategies for Clean Energy Growth:
    • Government should mandate cleaner fuels & fuel efficient engines
    • Promote CO2 capture and use in growing algae -> algae oil -> diesel.
    • Government should use subsidies to promote this:
      • Use Solar/MSW electricity for sugar mills
      • Use bagasse for ethanol/gasolien/diesel/LPG and chemicals.
      • (Note: fossil fuels are already subsidized by the government)
    • Decontrol the sale/purchase/price of fuels and electricity from solar/wind/biomass. Give private market and free enterprise a free hand in this market
    • Foster growth of startup companies for alternate energy tecnology

And Grow More Tree.

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