Viewed against the backdrop of the energy history of the country, the main-streaming of wind and solar has been rather sudden. Just three years ago, few would have thought of them as meaningful sources of energy. Today, they account for 7% of the country’s electricity production — small still, but firmly set to grow, by at least ten percentage points in the next five years.
Coal, on the other hand, while still being the dominant player, is on the back foot. Apart from being a source of pollution and global warming, it is also a water guzzler – in ten years, India’s coal-fired power plants will need 12,000 million litres each day, thrice as much as Mumbai consumes daily now. With these issues, there is little reason to believe in the fuel’s resurgence as a dominant force.
There is a lot more juice left in wind and solar than has been squeezed out today. Newer materials such as perovskites that can replace silicon are showing up, giving solar panels more bang for the buck; the cost of offshore wind is falling dramatically so as to open up literally new areas — the seas.
But solar is a daytime source, wind is seasonal, and both are on-off energy generators. Even with the advances in storage technology, these two sources cannot replace coal completely. It is unlikely that they have enough power to replace coal. If they can’t, what can?
The search for clean energy has not stopped with wind and solar. A phalanx of sources is waiting to be tapped into. Some—like Helium 3 from the moon—are on the very edge of science. But there are others that are not so far away. Swing the searchlight around, you see three that are more promising that the rest.
The gas’ time is truly beginning now, even if only for the reason that goes hand-in-hand with renewables. Electricity from wind and solar can be used to produce hydrogen, which can be stored. Also, hydrogen can be a good grid stabiliser — it can be used to fill gaps in the flow of power from wind and solar. “In a few years, hydrogen will compete with batteries,” says Dr. R.K. Malhotra, President, Hydrogen Association of India told The Hindu .
Japan is ahead in hydrogen use, but more for automotive applications, with around 90 hydrogen filling stations to serve fuel cell powered cars made by Toyota.
“It is a lot easier to use in stationary engines for power generation than in combustion engines,” said Dr. Malhotra.
But fuel cells are a lot more efficient, easier and cleaner way than burning it in combustion engines. Fuel cells are devices that split the hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons and get the electrons to flow through a circuit — flow of electrons is electricity. Smaller fuel cells can be used in vehicles and in applications such as powering telecom towers — a Bengaluru-based company called Intelligent Energy is selling such products. Larger fuel cells, or stacks of them, can used for electricity for the grid.
Hydrogen is not far off. French company, Alstom, has just come up with a fuel cell-powered passenger train, Coradia iLint. The rise of hydrogen is impeded only by the cost of the gas, but experts such as Dr. Malhotra expect the cost to decline when demand, and production, increase.
There are three subsets of this 24x7 energy source — waves (including up-down bob of the water surface), tides and underwater currents. A few commercial scale projects have come up, but there are dozens of pilots.
There are many tricks to steal energy from the oceans. For instance, the Swansea Bay project, U.K., is to build a U-shaped wall — or, breakwater — on the coast where there is a tide, with the mouth open to the sea and place an array of turbines along the mouth. Water comes in when the tide flows and goes out when it ebbs — it turns the turbines both times.
Another U.K. company, AIM-listed Atlantis Resources, places ‘underwater windmills’ on the sea bed — the turbines are turned by the flow of currents. The company claims to have 1,000 MW of projects underway, including its marquee 400 MW MeyGen project in Scotland and another 150 MW one in Indonesia. Atlantis Resources is no stranger to India — Gujarat State Power Corporation has an agreement with it to build a 250 MW tidal energy project. Tidal energy is not distant — companies like Alstom and GE have announced manufacture of the turbines.
The bobbing movement of the waters is another source of energy. Of the many companies that have tried to tap it, Wave Star Energy, (whose principal shareholders are the Clausen brothers, the owners of the Danish company Danfoss) seems closest to commercialisation. The technology is basically to let buoys to move up and down, compressing air or pumping water which could then turn the turbines.
Once dismissed as snake oil solution, energy from fusion of sub-atomic particles at near room temperatures has received a pep ever since an Italian engineer called Andrea Rossi came up in 2011 with a device that he claimed produces more energy than it consumes. His ‘E-Cat’ has since been at the heart of a huge technical and commercial controversy and the subject of a courtroom battle with an American company called Industrial Heat. The book ‘An Impossible Invention’ by Mats Lewan, is on the E-Cat.
Observers are divided into people who admire Mr. Rossi and those who think he is a fraud. But his E-Cat, which is a small box with a pinch of nickel, hydrogen and lithium, has rejuvenated the cold fusion talk.
While Mr. Rossi has kept the workings of his machine secret, a group of scientists were able to replicate it in a now-famous experiment carried out in 2014 in Lugano, Switzerland, and found it working, though they said they did not know how. Later, a respected Russian scientist, Alexander Parkhimov, repeated the experiment and reported success.
Alongside, a few companies in the U.S. have long been labouring over different forms of cold fusion.
Leading among them are Brillouin Energy and Brilliant Light Power. Their method is to tinker with atoms to release energy. Brillouin’s is to fuse two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom, while Brilliant works on nudging the electron in the hydrogen atom closer to the proton — both process release energy.
Cold fusion, as low energy nuclear reaction is commonly called, is not yet established science, but there is too much happening for it to be unreal. Recently, the Anthropocene Institute brought out a list of 100 entities, half of them commercial R&D that have raised $250 million.
In India, Dr. Mahadeva Srinivasan, a former BARC scientist, has made it his life mission to get Indian nuclear establishment interested in ‘low energy nuclear reactions’, to no avail. However, Dr. Srinivasan said he believed that LENR is a source of very cheap, clean energy and India should seize it.
Commercial hydrogen, ocean energy and LENR could be a decade away, but they are all happening technologies that have the potential to replace coal. Extremely cheap, clean power is no longer unthinkable.