Q&A – A Layperson’s Queries about Renewable Energy

We are all somewhere sceptical about renewable energy. It still seems rather unbelievable that we can actually power our homes and gadgets by harnessing energy from the Sun or the Wind or for Heaven’s sake Cow dung and Organic waste!! Will there really be a time when every family just fits a solar panel or wind turbine on their rooftops and we can shut down all the oil rigs and refineries in the world? Will we really be able to afford that? It seems like some Space-age movie.

So, here are some hard facts from WOTR’s Energy wing for us to really understand what alternate/ renewable energy implies- economically, socially and environmentally.

1. Is Renewable Energy really renewable? And will it last forever?

The source of energy i.e. Sunlight, Wind, Bio Mass etc. is renewable. But the means or resources required to convert this source of energy to its usable form is not renewable. The manufacturing, transportation and everything else continues to consume fossil energy. So an embedded energy footprint is inescapable. And like every finite material on Earth, once we run out of these, energy being renewable or not will make no difference as our means of production will end. We, at WOTR, hence have our doubts about how far these ‘renewable’� forms of energy will take humankind. Hence, we feel that maybe we should replace the term ‘Renewable Energy’� with ‘Alternate Energy’.

2. Is Alternate Energy really clean?

Yes, if it is able to return all the energy it consumed to be created, in form of the electricity it generates in its lifetime, then Alternate energy can be said to be clean, i.e. Energy returned will be equal to energy invested. But at the moment, this is subject to more research and development in technology.

3. Is this new energy more expensive than our usual Grid?

It looks like that if we believe only what is shown to us. There are capital costs and operational costs in any infrastructure. Just as there are capital costs to setting up Alternate Energy units – like production, assembling and setting up of solar energy systems or windmills or biomass plants, there are the same for mainstream energy production – construction of dams, thermal plant mines, setting up power stations etc.

When costs of alternate energy are calculated, 40% of the costs involved are infrastructural costs – Solar Panels, Wind Turbines and other fixed infrastructure. 30% is for storing the energy- usually batteries, and the remaining is of LEDs, micro controllers and the rest. But our electricity bills only cover operational costs but do not reflect capital costs of mainstream energy because these are subsidized and underwritten by the government.

If Alternate Energy is also billed only for operational expenses, i.e. batteries, then the cost per unit of would come down considerably and could even compete with the Grid.

4. Will these lights give enough illumination, just like the usual tubelights and bulbs?

Light Emitting Diode (LED) lights are way more efficient than conventional tube lights, incandescent bulbs or even CFLs. They can straightaway reduce energy consumption by 60-90%! The illumination is good but the spread of light is an issue, compared to tubelights. But new designs and models are becoming available. A 7 Watt LED bulb with a diffuser can easily replace 60 Watt incandescent bulb or a T5 tubelight.

5. Is there a lot of maintenance involved in alternate energy? How often do I have to change the battery or replace the solar panel?

Not much, really. The life of a solar panel is 25 years. At the end of 20 years the panel should deliver 80% of its rated performance. One needs to clean the panels regularly for optimum performance.

LEDs come with a rated life of 40,000 burning hours. Considering average use of 6 hours a day, they should last for 15-18 years. But we are yet to experience if they actually last that long.

There are different varieties of batteries. Regular batteries are made up of lead-acid which are also used in cars and invertors. They have shorter life of 800-1000 charging cycles which may last for around 2-3 years. Then there are lithium ion batteries, which are used in mobile phones and laptops. They have a longer life �1500 charging cycles that can last for around 5 years.

Since this technology is new, it would require some training and user experience to fully understand how it works.

6. How much energy will I realistically be saving? I mean, am I really making a difference?

As said before, Alternate energy does have an inescapable energy footprint. Since alternate energy forms would be more energy efficient, it would significantly reduce the load on fossil energy and thus in turn reduce the GHG emissions. So we will certainly make a difference.

How much of a difference we will make is a tricky thing to say because it depends on the type of alternate energy being used. Even by just replacing our existing home lighting system with LEDs we can straightaway reduce energy consumption by 60-80%. And a shift from grid to alternate home lighting saves the entire electrical load. A study estimates that the energy content in fossil fuels used at power stations is 4 times more than the energy that reaches us, which means actually saving 4 units of fossil energy for every single unit saved at our home!

7. How is this energy any different from let’s say Hydro-electricity. If my house is powered by Hydro-electricity, that is also alternate, right?

The question should really be �Is it any cleaner than alternate energy?� If we consider the environmental impacts of constructing dams on the biodiversity, ecology and habitat of an area and also social costs of displacement, then it is not doing any better compared to burning fossil fuels. Also, we are now running a risk of drying up our fossil aquifers beyond repair. We may end up having extended spells of drought which can make our rivers seasonal. In a scenario of acute water shortage, hydro power may not remain renewable.

8. Will there be a time when all appliances can run on Alternate Energy?

Yes, very much so. We at WOTR have set up a 5 KW Wind-Solar hybrid system which fully powers our training centre at Darewadi, in Ahmednagar district. We are not running, water pumps, air conditioners or geysers on alternate energy, because they will load the system too much. But basic lighting, fans, kitchen appliances and projectors for our training purposes run on this alternate system. There is a solar heater for hot water. It is an experiment, but has been doing well so far.

9. If this is all so cool, why has this technology not been implemented on a large scale yet?

Large scale shift to Alternate Energy is not easy. It has the following implications:

  • Large scale primary energy: Ironically, we need lot of fossil energy to construct a Zero Carbon infrastructure. These are scarce.
  • Resources: large amounts, cheap and efficiently available, which are not uniformly spread on earth. This has geopolitical as well as environmental implications.
  • Land: Extensive and large scale use of land means encroaching spaces of natural, biological and cultural diversity. Conventional energy has already done this with its large-scale projects that have already displaced millions of people.
  • Large scale investment and infrastructure: Separate distribution systems have to be set up for alternate energy. AE would also require Government subsidies.
  • Large scale willingness: A fragmented, piecemeal approach will not bring about the energy transition. A large-scale if not Global consensus is a prerequisite.

In conclusion, there are as many questions as there are answers about Alternate Energy. Given the current climate crisis, resource depletion and energy crisis, perhaps we have lost the luxury of asking questions.

What other options do we really have to feed our society’s insatiable demand for more and more energy?

Alternate Energy may not be able to give us a happily-ever-after scenario, but it is definitely a solution, albeit short term. It can help us buy a little more time and go a long, long way to reduce emissions, which is the crying need of the hour. The energy question however, will still remain. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, what kind of growth and distribution plan will fuel our infinite wants with finite resources on Earth, maybe we should be asking ourselves, if it is viable (or justified) for humankind to make such a demand in the first place.