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Monday, August 24, 2009

‘It’s time to catch the solar energy wave’

CHARLES F Gay has spent over three decades in the solar energy industry. His work has spanned developing solar panels for satellites to creating individual solar systems for rural homes. Dr Gay, president, Applied Solar, the solar energy unit of the $8-billion Applied Materials Santa headquartered in Santa Clara, California, sees an opportunity in both areas in India. In an interview with Shelley Singh, Dr Gay talks about the trends that could help increase adoption of solar energy technology in India. Excerpts: 

Applied Materials makes equipment that helps make semiconductors, flat monitors, TV display screens and so on. What is the focus of Applied Solar? 
Applied Materials has been doing that for 42 years and about three years back started the solar business, Applied Solar. I joined when the solar business started. Globally, Applied Materials employs 14,000 (that includes over 1,000 in India) and the solar business is part of the business that helps make solar photovoltaic cells and energy related products and services. 
Solar has been talked for very long as a clean alternative to bringing electricity to rural areas. But it doesn't seem to go beyond pilot projects. 
A good part of my life has been spent working in rural areas that have no electricity or might have had 
some wires but there are no electrons in those wires. Today, individual solar home systems are an ideal solution. What's exciting now is that the cost of solar has come down. 
How much will it cost? 
It takes about 70 watts of electricity to power a rural home. With this, people will 
be able to run light five hours a night, TV and fans. One 70-watt solar panel, a truck battery, a controller and sometimes an invertor (that takes DC electricity from solar panels and converts to AC). The average selling price of a solar panel is less than $2 per watt. 
That's very expensive for a rural household. Also 70 watt would barely light a bulb. 
Actually, there's a whole lot you can do with it. With 70 watts solar panel you could run 3-4 energy efficient lights for 6 hours a night, a TV set for 3-4 hours a night and a fan. Even if you put a 70 watt solar panel 
where there is just five hours of sunlight you get 350 watt hour of energy to run the house. At $2 per watt, that's $140 for solar panel and an equal amount for the other stuff. So, for less than $300, I meet electricity needs of a typical rural home. 
Do you have a workable model in India? 
In Andhra Pradesh, about 125 km outside Hyderabad, we put power into a panchayat at Mehboobnagar. We also got internet to the village. And this experiment, done via a foundation I run, Greenstar, has gone beyond just providing electricity and internet. We recorded the music of the area and via the internet marketed it to companies like Disney in the US! Companies who buy the music pay a licence fee. There is royalty going back to the village. 
But what about long-term viability of solar power, beyond the models? 
Now is the time to catch the solar energy wave. Not because climate change is a hot topic, but because solar is already cost effective for meeting peak power requirements like running air conditioners in hot summer afternoons or electrifying rural areas.


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