Imagine a crop that can be harvested daily on the most barren desert and arid land, with no fertilizer or tillage, and that produces no harmful emissions. Imagine an energy source so bountiful that it can provide many times more energy than we could ever expect to need or use. Imagine that an hour's worth of sunlight bathing the planet holds far more energy than humans worldwide could consume in a year. You don't have to imagine it -- it's real and it's here. Solar energy is an abundant enormous resource that is readily available to all countries throughout the world, and all the space above the earth. It is clean, no waste comes from it, and it's "free."
This "free" source of electricity can be used to supply the energy needs of homes, farms and businesses. Through the use of Photovoltaic (PV), Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) or Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), sunlight is converted into electricity that can provide power to businesses, homes, and drive motors. Solar power is becoming recognized as an important element in the energy supply planning and customer energy management of utilities worldwide.
I firmly believe that, to meet all its energy needs, India should diversify its energy mix by accelerating the use of all forms of Renewable Energy technologies (including PV, thermal solar, wind power, biomass, bio-gas, and hydro), and more proactively promote energy efficiency. However, in this article, I will only focus on the solar farming potential in India.
What is a Solar Farming?
On a solar farm, large amounts of power are generated from sunlight. Since solar energy is collected from a wide area, it is important to view the process as "farming" to "harvest" renewable energy from the sun. Solar farming is an opportunity for those in the agricultural sector to view solar energy as a "replacement harvest" and create cleaner forms of energy by transforming vacant or even underused land into farms that produce electrical energy. Solar farming lets individuals with non-income producing or otherwise useless acreage to generate a really great rate of return on investment. Imagine making 12% to 15% or more assured return on investment for 30 years without any up-front money. If you have a farm or ranch, even if smaller than an acre, in a location that gets direct sunlight consistently throughout the day and year round, you might consider installing a solar energy system as an alternative source of power. Having a solar energy system would allow you to produce your own electricity. Additionally you could sell some of your electricity to your neighbors, local businesses, or even the local utility company. This is a brand new approach to the solar energy business.
Solar energy farms, especially larger ones, can be interconnected into the electricity grid and produce significant levels of electricity offsetting traditional sources of generation. Moreover, large-scale solar-power generation has the potential to help meet India's enormous energy needs.
Solar energy provides a new kind of experience to farmers in growing their crops. New commercial solar technologies enable farmers to capture solar energy to produce electricity, heat and hot water to enrich their farms, businesses or homes. Solar power provides economic development and energy independence to farmers.
How to Implement Solar Farming
Some governments are providing huge grants or subsidies to fund community solar farm projects as part of their energy programs. Solar farming can help advance India's use of renewable energy and help assure achievement of economic development goals.
To successfully implement Solar Farming requires feed-in tariffs. This allows farmers to invest with the security of 20 to 25 year Government Grants. The energy from these farms is purchased directly by utilities, who often sign 10 to 20 year energy purchase contracts with solar farm owners/operators thereby securing low-cost energy for the end user.
Solar farms will also play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Just like many other traditional farm activities, solar farming is truly environmentally friendly. By installing solar farm equipment, you'll also considerably boost the value of your property -- it's a great selling point should you decide to sell your farm.
The Future of Solar Farming in Modern India
India is blessed with a vast Solar Energy potential. About 5,000 trillion kWh of solar energy is incident over India every year. Each day most parts of the country receive 4-7 kWh per square meter of land area5. India's deserts and farm land are the sunniest in the world, and thus suitable for large-scale power production. India can lead the world by embracing the power of the sun, if smart business models and realistic policies can be developed and implemented nationwide as quickly as possible. The Indian Government should embrace favorable tax structures and consider providing financial resources to fund projects to put up community solar farms as part of their energy development programs. India can become the Saudi Arabia of clean Solar Energy.
Solar Energy has the advantage of permitting the decentralized distribution of energy, particularly for meeting rural energy needs, thereby empowering people at the grassroots level. Solar electricity could also shift about 90 percent of daily trip mileage from gasoline to electricity by encouraging increased use of plug-in hybrid cars. For drivers in India this means that the cost per mile could be reduced by one-fourth (in today's prices).
A decline in solar panel prices over the last two years also has contributed to exponential increases in solar deployment worldwide and lower project costs. These factors have allowed developers to offer solar energy prices comparable to those paid for wind and fossil-fuel power. A new technology that also holds promise is Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV). First brought to commercial operation in 2008, CPV uses a concentrating optical system that focuses a large area of sunlight onto the individual photovoltaic cells. This feature makes CPV panels two to three times more efficient (approximately 40%) at converting sunlight to electricity as compared to silicon-based PV (15% to 20%) and thin films (9% to 13%)3. For details see the chart below.
Major cost reductions will be realized through mass manufacturing. The steep increase in system efficiency, combined with decreases in manufacturing costs could level the cost of energy for CPV at around $0.10/kWh by 2015. Various incentives by Central and State governments, including tax credits and feed-in tariffs, can further reduce the cost. Also, the "free fall" in solar panel prices has been driven by the growth of solar installations, which is no longer a small business -- but an over $100 billion industry worldwide. Cost reductions are so dramatic that Bloomberg recently reported solar energy could soon rival coal. The cost has become so competitive during peak times in Japan and California that the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot goal of $1 per watt for large projects by 2017 may happen a lot sooner4.
Solar farms are becoming massive -- for example, the Castilla La Mancha solar farm in Spain occupies an area the size of seventy football pitches and will have 100,000 solar panels when fully operational; capable of generating 30 million kilowatts an hour.
The next generation distributed nature of solar farmed renewable energy will provide a strategic advantage -- it will make the present utility companies and infrastructure obsolete. In my opinion, all new energy production in India could be from renewable sources by 2030 and all existing generation could be converted to renewable energy by 2050, if deployment is backed by the right enabling public policies.
Farming Solar Energy in Space
Harvesting solar power from space through orbiting solar farms sounds extremely interesting. The concept of solar panels beaming down energy from space has long been thought as too costly and difficult. However, due to the current global energy crisis and concerns about the environment, Japanese researchers at the Institute for Laser Technology in Osaka have produced up to 180 watts of laser power from sunlight. Scientists in Hokkaido have completed tests of a power transmission system designed to send energy in microwave form to Earth. Mitsubishi Electric Corp., a manufacturer of solar panels, has decided to join a $24 billion Japanese project to construct a massive solar farm in space within three decades.
Japan has already started working towards its goal by developing a technology for a 1-gigawatt solar farm, which would include four square kilometers of solar panels stationed 36,000 kilometers above the earth's surface. The energy that will be produced by the solar farm would be enough to supply power to nearly 400,000 average Japanese homes.
California's next source of renewable power could be an orbiting set of solar panels, high above the equator that would beam electricity back to earth via a receiving station in Fresno County. Sometime before 2016, Solaren Corp. plans to launch the world's first orbiting solar farm. Unfurled in space, the panels would bask in near-constant sunshine and provide a steady flow of electricity day and night. Receivers on the ground would take the energy -- transmitted through a beam of electromagnetic waves -- and feed it into California's power grid. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has agreed to buy power from a start-up company that wants to tap the strong, unfiltered sunlight found in space to solve the growing demand for clean energy.
Solar energy represents a bright spot on India's economic front. If India makes a massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power, it is possible that 70 percent of India's electricity and 35 percent of its total energy could be solar-powered by 2030. This would require the creation of a vast region of photovoltaic cells in the Southwest and other parts of the country that could operate at night as well as during the day. Excess daytime energy can be stored in various forms such as molten or liquid salt (a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate), compressed air, pumped hydro, hydrogen, battery storage, etc., which would be used as an energy source during nighttime hours.
Solar Energy will be competitive with coal as improved and efficient solar cells, concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) enter the market. I predict that solar farming advancements and growth would empower India's rural economies. To take advantage of low cost renewable solar energy, companies will move their operations from urban areas to rural areas due to cheaper land and labor within the solar belt.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) says solar photovoltaic is poised to compete with fossil fuels within the next 10 years because the PV systems have the potential to be the most economical form of generating electricity, even compared to traditional fossil fuels. "Solar PV will be a game changer," said James Prendergast, IEEE Senior Member and IEEE Executive Director4. "No other alternative source has the same potential. As the cost of electricity from solar continues to decrease compared to traditional energy sources we will see tremendous market adoption, and I suspect it will be a growth limited only by supply. I fundamentally believe that solar PV will become one of the key elements of the solution to our near- and long-term energy challenges."
Solar Farming is a renewable source of energy and the greenest form of commercial energy. Solar Energy has become the leading alternative to the costly and eco disasters associated with fossil fuels. I urge the Government of India to accelerate the country's solar energy expansion plans and policies by implementing government subsidies for residential solar power through renewable energy rebates and feed-in tariffs. Solar Farming is a great concept for an efficient use of otherwise barren land.
I think it's time to recognize that our energy must ultimately come from renewable resources, and hasten deployment of renewable energy. India must ramp up its effort to develop and implement utility scale solar energy in conjunction with its private partners to bring solar energy to market as quickly as possible. Large utility scale solar energy farms are part of the answer to implementing energy generated from the sun to meet India's economic development goals.
For example, Google is investing $168 Million in the biggest Solar Farm ever. When completed in 2013, the Mojave Desert-based Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will send approximately 2,600 megawatts of power to the grid, doubling the amount of solar thermal power produced in the U.S and generating enough electricity to power 140,000 California homes when operating at full capacity.
I personally think there are no technological or economic barriers to supplying almost 100% of India's energy demand through the use of clean renewable energy from solar, wind, hydro and bio-gas by 2050. India needs a radical transformation of energy system to the efficient use of renewable energies, especially solar power.
Solar Energy is a game-changing program for India. India must accelerate and encourage the domestic development of renewable energy now. It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will to achieve this goal to eliminate our wasteful spending and dependence on foreign sources of energy and save our planet. The Indian Government should provide favorable government policies to ease the permitting process and to provide start-up capital to promote the growth of solar energy. I think that policy changes can go a long way toward reducing costs. In the coming years state and central governments should provide initiatives and other support in order to increase solar power plant capacity. India could potentially increase grid-connected solar power generation capacity to over 200,000 MW by 2030, if adequate resources and incentives are provided. Solar energy is a Win-Win situation for India and the environment, and has the potential to power India's economy, create millions of new jobs and change the face of India as a Green Nation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and are not intended to represent the views or policies of the United States Department of Energy. The article was not prepared as part of the writer's official duties at the United States Department of Energy.