Running on sunshine: solar-powered firsts in India

A solar-powered ferry boat, charging station and water generator. Three companies providing renewable alternatives that go beyond household electricity

September 28, 2018 03:50 pm | Updated 03:59 pm IST

With great power comes… pesky electricity bills. But if you are opting to go renewable, especially solar, you are in luck. With start-ups like PuREnergy, 8minutenergy, and Oorjan bringing you rooftop solutions for both the home and commercial establishments, the solar power market has been on a rise over the last couple of years. In June this year, Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of the world’s biggest breweries, went fully solar-powered in partnership with energy provider Amp at its Mysore brewery. Even the government’s gotten into the act — Diu became India’s first and only union territory to go 100% solar in April. But the usage of solar power doesn’t end at home. Entrepreneurs are making the sunshine last, giving you several options to go green even after you step out of your house. A look at three companies that give us solar solutions that go beyond just household electricity.

Oh buoy!

When the Kerala government wanted a cost-effective renewable solution for their ferry boats in 2013, MBA-graduate Sandith Thandasherry pitched for a solar-powered option. Thandasherry had been working on the technology for boats and ships since 2009, and knew that with a little bit of work, this could be the answer they were looking for. And so NavAlt was born.

After two years of designing and another year to get the technology right, NavAlt gave the country its first fully solar-powered commercial ferry. The ferry completed one year in January 2018 and in that time “it transported 5,00,000 people across the backwaters of Kerala, travelled 20, 000 km without a single drop of fuel and saved 35,000 litres of diesel.” This roughly translates to 94 tonnes of CO2 and 8 tonnes of harmful emissions.

And now, the Kochi-based start up, which bagged the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme award in the renewable energy category in January 2018, is looking to widen their kitty further with houseboats and pleasure yachts. “A good solar-powered houseboat, with all the necessary safety approvals, would last about 20 years,” says Thandasherry, the CEO, adding, “You will break even in the first three years and then continue to make money.”

But if you already own a boat, can it be converted into a into a solar-powered one? He says it is possible, but there are caveats. “If the boat is already efficiently fitted out, we can add a parallel connection. But if it is old and made with traditional materials like wood and steel, it will cost more because you will have to compensate for the weight or compromise on the speed,” says the 40-year-old who uses fibreglass and other composite materials when designing a boat from scratch.

A small boat, with a capacity of 10-20 passengers (which is the smallest type of boat they offer) can cost up to ₹75 lakh. But for a ‘pleasure application’ as Thandasherry puts it, where the boat is taken out once in a while, can cost anywhere between ₹35 and ₹40 lakh. A typical houseboat, with quality bells and whistles put in, he insists, can cost up to ₹2 crore.

NavAlt offers two options, where either you can add a solar option as a backup to the main power system or go entirely 100% renewable. “But it depends on what you want,” says Thandasherry, giving me a quick math lesson on speed versus power. “The faster you go, the more power the boat needs, so a 100% solar option will not be feasible. So for something like a speedboat, or if you need to run an AC, you might need a hybrid solution.”


Charging ahead

Lack of good support systems is often cited as a reason for not being able to fully commit to going green. Even eco-friendly vehicles like electric vehicles (EVs) require charging, often for several hours. But here’s the catch — the electricity that feeds the EVs is not so green, with a large majority of India’s power still coming from traditional sources.

Here is where renewable energy company Magenta EV Solutions, through its parent company Magenta Power, hopes to cash in with its solar-powered charging stations. The company launched the country’s first ever solar charger for electric vehicles in May at Turbhe, Navi Mumbai. “I believe going electric is just transferring the pollution from the car’s tailpipe to the chimney of the power plant. It is not actually solving the pollution problem,” says Maxson Lewis, CEO of Magenta Power.

The fully solar-powered charger is manned 24x7, with security provided by a partner who also provides the location. “The charger is also connected to the local electricity grid as opposed to storing it via a battery,” says Lewis. He explains how Investing in a battery would have driven up costs so this way, whatever power is leftover after consumption, would be fed to the grid. Later, when power is required, one can simply tap into the grid.

Lewis says the charging station is currently aimed at commercial establishments, but it can can also be customised for housing societies, where it can be used by more people. The company also provides two types of chargers — AC and DC. The former is slow charger, requiring several hours of charging, while the latter can charge vehicles in an hour or two. Two wheelers use only AC charging, says Lewis. An AC charger that takes 8-10 hours to charge a vehicle will cost you between ₹20000 and ₹25000. A faster charging system can go up to a lakh.

DC chargers can cost around ₹4.5 lakh and are best suited for commercial establishments. “So if you are planning to get one for your home, an AC charger would be cheaper,” says Lewis. You can also choose a system where the charging station provides a 100% solar power, or just a part of it, he says.

There are two more charging stations lined up, with the company aiming to set up around 100 stations this financial year.


Warm up to vapour

The idea of extracting water from water vapour has been around for a while, but can it be powered by the sun? It is this idea that is propelling Hyderabad-based Uravu Labs towards a $1.75M prize. This young team’s start-up is one of the five finalists in the XPrize Foundation’s ‘Water Abundance XPrize’ competition (results to be announced in November).

Most conventional water generators use refrigeration technology, says Swapnil Shrivastav, Product Architect, CEO and co-founder of Uravu Labs. “These are basically, AC’s on steroids,” he says seriously. “They cool the air, after which the water vapour will condense into water. They do not work very well in low humidity conditions and require constant electricity.”

Uravu Labs’ EVA, on the other hand, harvests water from ‘aqua panels’ that absorb water vapour through the night. During the day, the solar collectors attached will heat them up, releasing the water vapour. “This is passed through a condenser tube and it condenses into liquid water,” explains the NIT-Calicut graduate. “Most of the solar power is used as thermal energy, but some of it is converted into electricity for a small fan and other electronics.”

EVA began as a simple condensation-based water generator in 2015, when Shrivastav and Uravu Labs’ other co-founders Venkatesh RY and Sandeep Nutaki were still studying at NIT-Calicut. “The deeper we looked at the product, we realised it would be difficult to sustain it economically, because it needed a lot of power. That’s when we decided on going solar,” says Shrivastav.

While EVA is mostly meant for rural households in especially water-starved areas, he says the device can be customised for houses and apartments in urban areas as well. “Each aqua panel is capable of providing enough water for drinking and cooking purposes for a family of four,” claims Shrivastav, adding that it can be installed on the terrace.

Currently, the team is heading into the Round 2 Testing phase, where they are required to harvest 2,000 litres of fresh water from thin air per day, at a cost of two cents per litre —less than a rupee and a half — with 100% renewable energy. They still have a way to go before they have a final price for the project, but if they win, Shrivastav sees a six to nine- month deadline to enter production.


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