How professors at IITs are improving India's solar power efficiencies
Nayak worked for some time from an old government building without any power backup, struggling with the heat and frequent power cuts. His response? A creation to harness this heat.
Dissatisfied with the existing UPS systems, Nayak invented one that ran on solar power, got a patent and founded a company called Karma. He and his colleagues also took electricity to Odisha’s villages, all the while being closely watched by the Naxalites in the hills.
During these trips, Nayak discovered that small farmers had no solar pumps either. Since larger pumps are not economical for small holdings, he developed a smaller solar-powered version that was ideal for 90% of the farmers in Odisha.
Today, Nayak is not alone. Although solar energy installations have been in the country for over two decades, few companies were practising serious technical innovation. This is changing now, as researchers in good institutions are developing ways of improving efficiencies and finding new applications for solar.
Specifically, some IIT professors have used their expertise to bring significant energy efficiencies in solar installations, while creating new markets as well.
ENVIRONMENT & ECONOMY
Bhubaneswar-based Karma created a market for solar pumps that did not exist before. At IIT Madras, electrical engineering professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala developed an inverter-less solar system — also with significant energy and cost savings.
At IIT Hyderabad, aerospace engineering professor Nishant Dongari designed a one-stop shop solution in solar energy and formed a startup called PuREnergy. He says, “Even in the worst-case scenario, we would like life to go on as usual.” Heavy rains caused power outages in
Hyderabad this week, but life seems to have gone as usual for PuREnergy installations in the city.
In his day job at IIT Hyderabad, Dongari studies the dynamics of the upper atmosphere, a skill that is useful around the world for calculating the path of rockets and missiles, not to speak of complicated trajectories for anti-ballistic missiles.
Dongari puts his skills to good use, but he had been eyeing the solar energy market since he was a student at IIT Bombay. As he saw it, most solar energy installations were either off-grid or connected to the grid. He wanted to create a hybrid solution optimised for any situation.
In its short existence of a year and a half, PuREnergy has 100 small and medium installations and four large ones. The small installations include houses and apartments, while large installations are inside companies.
Natco Pharma in Hyderabad is working towards shifting completely to renewable energy and has an installation of 2.5 mw in Hyderabad, part of which was executed by PuREnergy. “Their design brought down the structural costs,” says PSRK Prasad, executive director, engineering services, Natco. Total cost also came down from Rs 4.5 crore to Rs 4 crore.
Such a decrease in costs would be the first impact of improved efficiencies. In such cases, all capital investments would be recovered in less than five years, making solar energy attractive. Advanced technology and design improves quality, brings down operational expenses, reduces need for land and brings the ability to address problems quickly.
Ease of monitoring would be an added advantage, as both PuREnergy and IIT Madras startup Cygni Energy do remote monitoring of solar installations. Solar installations, especially those in remote areas, are always in danger of slow decay due to lack of maintenance.
The idea for Cygni, based in Hyderabad but a startup from IIT Madras, began when Ashok Jhunjhunwala and a few others tested the energy losses in existing solar systems. They found almost all installations are inefficient, with their efficiency – from generation to load – ranging from 20% to 65%. The efficiency was especially poor in low-power systems, mostly because of poor-quality inverters.
Jhunjhunwala and his team then established a startup with Venkat Rajaraman, an entrepreneur based in Hyderabad. IIT Madras and Cygni made a completely new design aimed at high efficiencies. Their main innovation was to do away with the inverter in a solar energy system.
Solar cells produce direct current (DC), which is then converted to alternating current (AC) for an application. If a battery is involved, the AC is converted back to DC for charging and then converted again to AC for running devices. In some current applications such as laptops and LED lighting, the AC is once again converted to DC by the device.
The system loses energy through multiple conversions, especially if the inverters are of poor quality. In the Cygni system, current from the solar cells goes directly to devices that can take a DC input. Since LED bulbs, fans, television sets and mobile chargers can all take DC input or be tweaked to do so, the inverter-less system can be used with all these devices.
Cygni was established at the end of 2014 and got its first customer in January 2015. So far, it has done 24,000 installations, nearly half in Rajasthan and Bihar. Most them are through government support, either at the Centre or state. All the installations are being monitored from a network operating centre in Hyderabad.
“Solar installations stop working after some time,” says Rajaraman, CEO, Cygni Energy, “because there is no one to monitor them in remote locations.”
Remote monitoring is thus a game changer for the industry, and is now being practised by few other companies as well.
IN THE FIELDS
Government and industry officials regard the solar pump as a game-changer as well and not just for the farmers. “A solar pump is clean and reduces the cost of power,” says Vinay Rustagi, managing director of Bridge To India, a solar energy market research company. “And a pump can be used for other purposes as well.”
Officials from the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) estimate that if half the diesel pumps in the country are replaced by solar pumps, it would give the banks a loan opportunity of Rs 1 lakh crore.
Back in Odisha, when Nayak did a quick study of farmers, he found about 90% of them owned less than two acres while some 60% owned less than one acre. Water pumps in the market were usually 2 horsepower or more and were a waste for such small land holdings.
The pump Nayak designed was an efficient 0.5 horsepower, which is ideal for small farmers. It is this pump that the MNRE ministry officials and banks support and expect to be used widely in the country.
Perhaps, the future will bring in more IIT professors to the realm of energy innovation.