Harnessing Sun’s power | Daily News

Harnessing Sun’s power

The ongoing summit of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in India marks a watershed moment for solar power in the Asia Pacific region. President Maithripala Sirisena is participating in the summit, highlighting Sri Lanka’s commitment to solar power.

Sri Lanka has a head start over many other countries in this sector, having successfully waged a “solar power battle” (Surya Bala Sangramaya) to bring the power of the sun to the masses. The Government also provides many incentives and concessions for those converting to solar power and one can even sell any excess energy to the National Grid. The Government is also going ahead with several new solar power projects, including a 10 MW project in Vavunathiv, Batticaloa.

On its part, the ISA wants to undertake joint efforts required to reduce the cost of finance and the cost of technology, mobilize more than US $ 1000 billion of investments needed by 2030 for massive deployment of solar energy, and the global deployment of over 1,000 gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity. India, where the ISA is meeting now, has set an ambitious target of installing 175 GW of renewable energy, including 100 GW from solar by 2020 as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the ISA have also signed a cooperation arrangement to promote solar energy deployment in Asia and the Pacific. The cooperation envisages solar power generation, solar based mini-grids, and transmission systems for integrating solar energy into grids. The ISA and the ADB would also cooperate on knowledge sharing and developing technology roadmaps for the promotion of solar energy.

We have barely realized the potential of solar power. The energy that the Sun gives every second is actually enough to provide all of the planet’s energy needs for several years, but technology has not yet progressed to that level. However, the efficiency of solar panels is increasing by the day and costs of panels and inverters are falling. Indeed, according to India’s The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) Chief Ajay Mathur, solar power will cost less than thermal power in just six to seven years. At the moment, the cost factor has become a deterrent for the widespread adaptation of solar power, though many countries provide incentives to go solar.

Solar power has developed rapidly over the last 25 years, a period sometimes called the “sunrush”. There was just 100 MW capacity worldwide in 1992, which has grown to 300 GW by 2017. Costs have gone down by an astounding 86 per cent from 2009 to 2017. But this is an industry that cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Researchers around the world are racing to explore new materials which can eke out more energy from the sun’s photons and be used more flexibly than today’s panels. Today’s silicon (Photovoltaic panels) could be complemented or replaced by those made from a new material called Perovskite that could enable the manufacture of cheap, highly efficient solar coatings that could be unspooled from a printer much as a newspaper is printed. Perovskite captures energy from a different part of sunlight’s wavelength than silicon, so scientists plan to layer it atop silicon, to maximise electricity generation.

Solar power is not just for residential or commercial purposes. It was reported recently that a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka had patented a solar-powered car. The chief incumbent of the International Meditation Centre at Rathmalkanda Aranyaya (hermitage) in Kitthalella, Bandarawela Ven. Madawala Upali Thera has received this patent for his invention. Worldwide, such efforts are underway to build solar powered vehicles most of which are featured at a solar car race held in Australia.

Sri Lanka which gets year-round sunshine is a prime candidate for solar power and the other leading source of renewable energy, wind power. Being a net oil importer (at a cost of US$ 6 billion a year), it is important to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and thermal power. Besides, oil is running out and may be gone in less than 100 years. In this context, the Government’s recent decision to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040 is highly commendable. In the meantime, there should be a gradual shift to electric vehicles and renewable energy.

The good news is that scientists are close to cracking the holy grail of renewable energy – nuclear fusion, which is the same process powering the Sun. A fusion reactor works by forcing two hydrogen atoms to become a single helium atom, a process that releases subatomic particles that generate intense heat. A commercial fusion reactor would use the same power source to boil water into steam and turn electrical generators.

Now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a new company founded by the school’s scientists (Commonwealth Fusion Systems) believe they are less than two decades away from turning nuclear fusion into a practical energy source thanks to new technologies that have just become available. This means that the world could finally move away from fossil fuels by around 2050 and fully embrace renewable energy. 


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