Atanu Dey On India's Development

Solar or Nuclear: Which is the better option for India?

It is easy to argue that energy is the binding constraint that faces all of humanity, not just the developing economies. Of course, given the projected increase in demand and the decline in the supply of fossil fuel energy, the price of energy will continue to move up–with predictable adverse effects on the growth prospects of the emerging economies.

The current global burn rate is 12.8 TW (terawatts = 10**12 watts) which is projected to grow to something between 28 and 35 TW by 2050. That figure is from the description of a course in MIT called “Renewable Energy: Capturing the Sun” (Hat tip: JP)

Sunlight is by far the most abundant global carbon-neutral energy resource. Solar has the significant advantages of wide distribution, it is the most environmentally sound energy source, and solar has the potential to meet the large scale energy needs of the future. More solar energy strikes the surface of the earth in one hour than is provided by all of the fossil energy consumed globally in a year. Sunlight may be used to power the planet by its conversion into electricity and chemical fuel. But there is a problem. A response to the “grand challenge” of using the sun as the future’s energy source faces a daunting challenge – large expanses of fundamental science and technology await discovery for sunlight-based energy systems to be enabled and a robust energy policy must be developed that permits new solar technologies to be implemented in a competitive energy market.

The course description goes on to note that significant investment in R&D is required for solar energy to compete with other forms.

The solar opportunity represents a high payoff direction with significant reward but there is no escape that the development of this energy source faces tremendous challenges and substantial breakthroughs are needed. Any viable solar energy conversion must result in a 6 fold decrease in the cost-to-efficiency ratio for the production of electricity and a 10-20 fold decrease stored fuels and must be stable and robust for a 20-30 year period. To reduce the cost of installed solar energy conversion systems from $0.25 – 0.40/kW hr to $0.02 – 0.10/kW hr, a cost level that would make them economically very attractive in today’s energy market, will require truly revolutionary technologies that do not exist at the present time. With the current science and technology landscape for solar so wide open, and no obvious “silver bullet” solution to the problem on the horizon, a comprehensive understanding of the solar energy problem and the science that underpins its solution will be the focus of this course.

I believe that someone someday soon enough would do the R&D needed. Why not India? If not India, once again it will find itself going around begging for the technology — as it is doing in the case of nuclear power.

Talking of nuclear power, I am not at all convinced that it is a long-term solution for India’s energy needs. My guide into this issue is Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Read his non-technical summary article titled “Forget Nuclear” (Hat tip: Amit) in which he compares “the cost, climate protection potential, reliability, financial risk, market success, deployment speed, and energy contribution of new nuclear power with those of its low- or no-carbon competitors.”

He argues that nuclear is uncompetitive in terms of costs and CO2 displacement, is of questionable reliability, and require high subsidies to off-set high financial risks. But even given the subsidies, he notes that investors are not interested in nuclear.

. . . the private capital market isn’t investing in new nuclear plants, and without financing, capitalist utilities aren’t buying. The few purchases, nearly all in Asia, are all made by central planners with a draw on the public purse. In the United States, even government subsidies approaching or exceeding new nuclear power’s total cost have failed to entice Wall Street.

I think India needs to rethink its energy policy and figure out where nuclear fits into the larger scheme of things. The India-US nuclear deal is not a done deal yet — and that may be a good thing. Here’s Amory Lovins’ conclusion:

So why do otherwise well-informed people still consider nuclear power a key element of a sound climate strategy? Not because that belief can withstand analytic scrutiny. Rather, it seems, because of a superficially attractive story, an immensely powerful and effective lobby, a new generation who forgot or never knew why nuclear power failed previously (almost nothing has changed), sympathetic leaders of nearly all main governments, deeply rooted habits and rules that favor giant power plants over distributed solutions and enlarged supply over efficient use, the market winners’ absence from many official databases (which often count only big plants owned by utilities), and lazy reporting by an unduly credulous press.

Isn’t it time we forgot about nuclear power? Informed capitalists have. Politicians and pundits should too. After more than half a century of devoted effort and a half-trillion dollars of public subsidies, nuclear power still can’t make its way in the market. If we accept that unequivocal verdict, we can at last get on with the best buys first: proven and ample ways to save more carbon per dollar, faster, more surely, more securely, and with wider consensus. As often before, the biggest key to a sound climate and security strategy is to take market economics seriously.

As far as I am concerned, the answer to the question–solar or nuclear–is a no-brainer. It has to be solar. Otherwise India is up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

  • idlinginc

    While Indians are busy toiling away at the four passions/pillars of India (cricket, tv, cinema and orkut), Israelis have the right perspective and motivation.

    We see solar breakthrough news everyday, sooner or later one of them is going to work out.

    Israeli’s are doing R&D not only in solar energy, but also areas that are directly dependent on it, eg, Shai Agassi’s electric car venture in collaboration with Carlos Ghosn and massive support from Israeli govt.

  • pankaj

    idlinginc how ca u compare israel with india ,israelis are tigers we are cowards,as atanu has said in this post we are going to beg for solar power technology the same way we r begging for nuclear power.our ‘bright public ‘ are busy watching cricket league matches, dancing and singing programmes on tv,games shows etc.

  • Sundar

    Solar clearly holds the key. Unfortunately it is not in the agenda of government research.

    Recently there was a news about Indian private sector investing several thousand crores in Solar power sector.

    Mosear Bear, Reliance and others have announced big plans to produce solar panels that could produce over 1500 MW / annum. (URL given below. However I am not suure if these announcements are to garner 25% subsidy provided by government.

    It could take 15+ years of R&D to make it anywhere closer to coal based power. However Nuclear is not so expensive as it is made out to be.
    Technologies have reasonably matured. But i do not think it will meet more than 25% power needs of India.
    States like Tamil Nadu produce over 15% power from wind energy for six months in a year.
    India has potential to tap over 50000MW from Hydel power.

    Finally, sustenance should be our way of life. While thinking about producing more clean energy, we must rigorously work on energy efficiency and conservation in all possible ways.

  • lurker

    Indeed Israel is at the forefront of research. How can you compare Israel to India.

  • Pingback: Solar or Nuclear for India « World is Green

  • vakibs

    Hi Atanu

    Your post has a very misleading title : There is no question of “solar vs nuclear” before us. It is rather “coal/oil vs nuclear”. Solar energy cannot replace the entire energy needs of the world. “More solar energy strikes the surface of the earth in one hour than is provided by all of the fossil energy consumed globally in a year. ” It is plain silly to think like this. So what ? How do we propose to capture all this miraculous solar energy hitting the surface of the earth ? Should we cover up the surface with photovoltaic cells ? Do we have enough copper and minerals to produce so many cells ? Do we have enough free land to release for this solar energy production ? How much time does it take for this much investment to pay off, in terms of produced energy ?

    Nuclear energy is billion times more concentrated and thus it qualifies for being termed a fuel. Solar energy is great, but it cannot replace coal/oil. If nuclear is batman, solar would be robin. You cannot expect a sidekick to take on the evil villain (coal/oil) all by himself.

    Neither can wind power produce an equal amount of electricity as coal. Firstly, we don’t have wind everywhere and secondly, we can’t let precious land go off for these wind farms. Hydel power can indeed replace a substantial chunk of coal, but as you know, large dams would inundate immense swathes of fertile land forests. We have enough agitations against large dams already.

    But the most important reason for supporting nuclear, is “now”. It is the only energy that can deliver right now. It is the only energy that has clearly defined potential to satisfy our energy needs for several million years to come. In the meanwhile, scientific research would produce several great breakthroughs.

    The costs of not shifting to a nuclear power driven economy, would be continued dependence on imported fossil fuels, whose prices are escalating exponentially on the global market. This cost will fall directly upon the poorest of the people in terms of extraordinary inflation. Wait a minute, it is already happening.. 7.52 % as it stands now.

    Being a tropical country, we should use solar energy for all that it has to offer. We should use it for nice pocket applications .. water purification,air conditioning in summer time etc. Solar energy is a valuable sidekick in the fight against fossil fuels.

    Nobody is criticizing solar energy or investment in research. This has to be done. But as a question of ” now” , we have to adapt nuclear energy with the maximum speed possible. Responsible scientists are already working out the details in India. Our country is considered one of the stars in nuclear power research. Probably, it will be our scientists who will first construct breeder reactors, and it will be our scientists who will first realize the Thorium cycle of nuclear power production. Along with space industry, nuclear power is already a matter of national pride for us. We are not importing technology any more. In fact, with the US-India nuclear deal, all we would be getting is world wide recognition that has been eluding us since 1972.

  • ashujo

    And I would strongly suggest you read up on both nuclear and solar if you think the decision is a “no-brainer”. You are going to get nowhere if you use Amory Lovins as your guide.
    How about Gwyneth Cravens’ recent “Power to Save the World”? It’s a good, balanced primer written by someone who formerly was anti-nuclear but then, as she talked to people and looked at reality, objectively changed her mind.

  • lurker

    I say
    for the preseent term and Nuclear for shortterm with other sources like solar where they make sense.

    Beyond the near shortterm that Its any ones guess weather solar would work for electric, It may it may not….The data is inconclusive.
    and i am not some one who is inclined to make longass predictions on insufficient data particularly when theres a moral smugness from one party doing the demanding.

    The reason are India has coal, as well as thorium.

    Yes coal dirty but its getting cleaner.
    BTW dont rule out petroleum yet.
    Any one who knows laws of thermodynamics knows that we still can squeeze more energy out of it. One promising technology is ceramic engines not metal but ceramic engine burning fuel at a better temprature profile than metal….

    And india has thorium and for the most part all the basic science and hard engineering is done, so why sit on it and not deploy it….It may turn out if its unsucessful b/c of any number of factor,
    but the data there at present looks more promising to me.

    PS If you are of technical orientation
    check out ciarcias analysis of solar power
    that was published in circuitcellar magazine.
    He(ciarcia) installed the panel b/c he got subsidy and no other reason.
    In fact he had to cut down trees to make sure he gets ample sunlight on the panel.
    Also check out don lancasters work at in this. It may be some one like don who actually may contribute to solar energy based on his work on efficient inverters rather than a wanking environmentalist.

    The bottom line, where solar makes sense with all the longterm market forces it gets deployed,
    where it doesnt it relies on subsidies it depends on the mood of the politicians and that one day when the decision was made.

    In indias case solar electricity has some pluses and many other issues as well.
    One issue tbeing you cant mine anything be it minerals needed for solar,coal,thorium without an enviromnental cost.
    Which one has lower cost?
    That should be discussed, no one discusses which minerals and how are they mined.
    Is solar photovoltaic better than solar bio stuff like algaes=>biofuel?
    How much land is needed for it?
    How far away it is from population area?

    There are huge questions surrounding this.
    The best way to resolve is to reduce barrier to entry for competing ideas but not necessarily huge subsidies to 1 industry or the other…..

    So I say do whats known at present, Explore other options with more dilligence than in the past and let the market work.

    Faar too many doogooders have F’ed up usuualy government money on their dreams or in some sinister cases its the pump and dump crowd that comes in for any bubble?
    Theres a crowd that wants the green bubble so that they make a fast buck….