There has been nearly 10 per cent increase in sale of solar devices in the city in the past one year

Rising fuel prices, frequent power cuts and the overall costs that accompany the use of electrical devices have forced many households and institutions in the city to look beyond conventional sources of energy, especially at solar power.

Suppliers point to a nearly-ten per cent-increase in the sale of solar devices in the city in the past one year. According to K. R. Jagadeesh Babu, General Manager, Solkar Solar Industry, the number of players in the solar energy market has increased from 50 to 75 this year with most of them based in Chennai. Solar water heaters, solar streetlights and solar inverters are gaining demand too, he adds.

The State government's proposal to build 1.8 lakh green houses with rooftop solar panels could play a decisive role in altering public perception, says Ajit Kumar Kolar, founder and convener of the IIT-Madras Energy Forum.

While regular solar water heaters cost up to Rs. 20,000, the new tube-shaped ones that absorb solar energy easily in 2-3 hours cost lesser, say users. “Many households on ECR and in Velachery are going for them. The only complaint that we get is of the glass panel getting broken,” says Harish Kumar, a distributor of Tata –BP solar water heaters. Sometimes, panels with low-quality stainless steel are a problem too. “We left it for a year. Without maintenance, it gets eroded,” says S. Raghavan, who has been using solar heater for five years now.

While solar energy utilisation for power generation may not be economic for individual households, it can be ideal for a set of houses, say U. V. Krishna Mohan Rao, a resident of Madipakkam. With solar water heater, natural lighting systems, LEDs and a solar panel, Mr. Rao's household spends just about Rs. 50 on electricity a month. His investment was about Rs 2.5 lakh three years ago. “Pipes that directly harness solar light to offices and houses that remain dark even during daytime is something that can be easily done,” he says.

Though almost 70 per cent of solar appliances are manufactured in the country now, they are only for small-scale usage, and the invertors and cells are still being imported, says Narasimhan Santanam, Director, Energy Association of India. “While solar water heaters have a payback time of 2 years, it takes 10 years to recover the capital cost of solar lighting system. A system of one kilo watt capacity will cost nearly Rs.2.2 lakh,” says Sikkander Amin, managing partner of Solarys Energy Solutions. But, if 1,000 houses instal water heaters, nearly six megawatt of electricity can be saved per year, he adds.

“Solar panels must come up wherever possible - wastelands, open grounds, rooftops. Big apartment complexes must start thinking about an integrated energy conversion system with rooftop photovoltaic cells and micro wind turbines on the rim,” says Mr. Kolar.

“It is true that solar energy is the most expensive at the moment (Rs.23-Rs.25 per unit) and only 10 -20 per cent of generated capacity can be stored for later use. But, wind energy had similar issues initially,” Mr. Kolar adds. The 400-kw solar panel installed recently at L&T, Manapakkam, and steps taken by Anna University, S.S.N. College of Engineering and Satyabhama University to use solar energy are commendable, say experts. With regard to battery costs, Bhoovarahan Thirumailai, CEO, Aspirations Energy, says they are coming down as the anticipated pick-up of electrical vehicles did not work out. “If as predicted, the battery costs come down by one and a half times the existing prices in the next five years, it can work wonders for solar energy users,” he adds.

Energy consultants say that while a well-drafted State policy to buy tapped solar power from residents and distribute the generated electricity from grids can help, implementation is the key.

They add that availing the 30 per cent subsidy of the Central government for solar energy users has been difficult for many. Pointing out that installation of water heaters has been made mandatory in Karnataka, manufacturers say the State government must support such initiatives and purchase electricity generated from the consumer.

“Residents get electricity at highly subsidised rates, so they find it expensive. Commercial users pay higher tariffs for electricity, so solar power works well for them now,” says Mr. Thirumailai.

Advocating greener building designs that can function purely using the limited amount of power that apartment-based renewable sources can generate, Deepa Sathiaram, executive director, En3 sustainability solutions, says the amount of energy used on artificial lighting during day time could be reduced by up to 95 per cent.

(With inputs from K. Lakshmi, Vasudha Venugopal and Ajai Sreevatsan)

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