Environment protection has become almost a cliché after being talked about for so many years without any purposeful action that it urgently deserve. Cynicism, disbelief, complacency are the most common responses that it evokes not forgetting sincere efforts from many sporadic groups. If we pause for a moment to think about it with an open mind it is not difficult to understand that the logic is so simple and the threat so real.
Our earth is a small planet having a total mass of 6X10^21 tons. Over six billion people, still counting, with their ever growing material demands, most of them extravagant, are depending upon a small portion of this gross mass to sustain their life. For this we dig out millions of tons of fossil fuel and other minerals on a daily basis. To process this into usable products we consume huge quantities of vital resources such as water, fresh air etc. that are otherwise essential for our basic needs and in the process release very toxic gases and waste water into the environment in such large quantities so as to upset the subtle balance of the eco system.
This is unmistakably a vicious circle. Even being fully aware of this we go on helplessly, hopelessly like the rats following the pied piper in the old story without making any serious effort to tackle the issue.
Fortunately technology has shown us a way out of this grim predicament. In contrast to the fast depleting energy resource that nature has stored for us over millions of years, we have one and only one abundant and lasting source of energy- the sun or solar energy.
To convert sunlight into electricity is indeed a wonderful concept. The technology which we saw at work with wonder and disbelief in science exhibitions decades ago is now widely available on an industrial scale. What is preventing us from embracing it totally is the million dollar question that our very existence on earth depends upon.
The technology, of course, is very much there, but far short of where we want it to be. Or, rather, we have yet to go a lot. The world is anxiously waiting for a leap in all technologies connected with solar energy. We want a growth comparable to that in personal computer or mobile communication. First of all we need highly efficient solar panels at much less production cost similar to computer chips.
As everybody knows the most discouraging factor in solar power utilization is storage is power considering the fact that power is not available during night. It can be said that we didn’t have a major breakthrough in battery technology for many years. Whatever happening in this area by way of rechargeable Ni-Cd, Li ion etc. is confined to small scale applications. The conventional batteries used in solar application are costly, bulky and of short life span. The result is that whatever saved by way of power bill is taken away by battery replacement. So we need a revolutionary breakthrough by which the efficiency and life span of solar cells and batteries are progressively stretched while cost and size are reduced significantly. In concrete terms, a solar panel about 6ft square combined with a lap top size of a battery should be able to supply enough power for a medium size house for at least ten years with the cost recovered in two years. Alternatively, a step further ahead, the solar panel itself should be able to store the power making separate battery redundant.
Once these objectives are achieved, there is no looking back.
Solar power would be an essential fixture in all types of construction. With respect to power they would be their own masters or even suppliers. The present power lines may be used only to feed power back to the grid. The power grid would be used only for high tension industrial application.
Needless to say, the street lights would be powered by solar energy. The public grid would save a lot of power on account of elimination of transmission loss. The cascading effect would make some hydroelectric projects redundant providing more water for agriculture in the summer season.
The next step would be to convert all automobiles, trains to solar power driven. The new highly efficient panels would be built into the design of the vehicles to supply uninterrupted power.
In a separate innovation, numerous small windmills attached to the vehicles would tap wind energy capitalizing upon the speed of the vehicle. With this combustion engine would become a museum piece.
What are the rosy possibilities of all this?
All types of pollution, air, noise, heat would be drastically reduced especially in cities and fresh, cool air would make a comeback after a gap of many decades paving the way for remarkable improvement in the health of city dwellers.
On a global scale, the upper atmosphere also would benefit by the reduction in greenhouse gases as well as the subterranean environment due to reduction in fossil fuel mining.
The far reaching consequences of such a combination of developments is quite unimaginable.
How wonderful it would be if these revolutionary innovations which can totally transform the life and environment on earth came from India! It is not at all an impossible dream, India being a treasure trove of brilliant minds. We should be able to repeat what we have achieved in space technology. With similar inspiring leadership and combined effort involving brilliant educational institutions such as IITs, IISc etc. and all industrial, research establishments in public and private sectors it is quite a realistic possibility that the new age of solar energy dawns upon the Indian horizon in the near future.