Energy Industry Entrepreneurs
Primer on Solar Energy
Written by Gautam Patil for Gaebler Ventures
So what is Solar Energy and how is it being harnessed throughout the world? Rising crude oil prices and increasing awareness on climate change have intensified research in this field and brought about interesting innovations and applications.
Solar Energy is basically the energy, in the form of heat and radiation, received by earth from the sun.
The earth's surface receives many times over its current energy requirements in the form of solar energy itself. In fact, tapping even .02% of this source could fulfill our current global energy requirements.
The problem however, as with most other renewable sources, is the energy density and reliability. That is, solar energy is not a concentrated and reliable source of energy like for instance, fossil fuels or nuclear power.
Large surfaces of land need to be covered with such devices to be able to produce significant amounts of electricity.
This however, has not restricted the use of solar energy and with some focused research it is finding many new and interesting applications:
- Water heating: Many homes, hotels, hospitals and other institutional facilities in tropical countries have solar heaters mounted on their terrace to provide for their hot water requirements. As most energy is tapped directly, the resulting losses are lower which means better heating and thus high return on investments. These heaters are effective even on overcast days.
- Cooking: Solar cookers are basically a contraption of reflecting surfaces and insulating materials which can concentrate and retain solar energy which provides the heating for cooking purposes. They haven't caught on as much as solar heaters but deployment on an institutional scale has helped achieve significant savings. For instance, a solar cooker installed at Mount Abu (Rajasthan, India) can cook up to 38,500 meals per day on days of peak solar radiation!
- Heating: Apart from water heating and cooking, solar energy is also harnessed to provide heat for various processes like hot air, steam generation and space heating in buildings. The simplest example is drying clothes under the sun after washing.
- Electricity: Solar energy could be used to produce electricity through 'photovoltaic' (PV) principles (via incidence of sun's radiation on photovoltaic panels) or 'thermal' principles (via steam or hot air generation that is later used to run turbines). The photovoltaic panels are made of specially processed silicon or other semiconductor alloys and their initial usage, due to high costs, was restricted only to space applications. Photovoltaic panels are more suited for domestic usage or off-grid applications (electricity generation in places not served by the electricity grid) while thermal principles have been used in large scale electricity generation plants. In countries like Germany and Spain, governments have incentivized PV capacity installation at the domestic level through tax incentives and power purchase policies. Ambitious projects like the Solar Tower (www.enviromission.com) in Australia will use the thermal principle to generate over 200MW of power and with banks of solar cell they will be able to run 24 hours a day.
Solar energy has immense potential and is touted as the energy source for the future.
It is throwing open many business opportunities which were deemed unviable so far. Government incentives and subsidies are helping small entrepreneurs eke out a living by selling or renting out solar equipment.
The PV industry has seen massive investments, especially in China, and is creating thousands of direct and indirect jobs. With emphasis on cleaner fuels increasing in the future and rapid strides in the PV manufacturing technology, things will only get 'brighter' for solar energy.
As an entrepreneur, you can watch solar power come to market, or you can play an active role in the process and make a handsome profit in the bargain. This is an area that is ripe with entrepreneurial opportunity, and many smart entrepreneurs will figure out ways to make money while solving the energy crisis.
Gautam Patil is a recent MBA graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. In addition to serving as a contributing writer for Gaebler.com, he will join the consulting firm Oliver Wyman at their London office.
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