Solar better than nuclear for India: Experts

Solar better than nuclear for India: Experts

Summary: In the race to fix the widening shortfall of power in India, many say that alternative sources like solar and even wind are becoming cheaper by the day, especially when measured up against the prime minister's pet project, nuclear plants.


On the cusp of elections, the two-term serving Indian Manmohan Singh recently laid the foundation stone for the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership in the Indian state of Haryana. To meet its future power demand, declared Singh, India aims to produce more than 27,000 MW of nuclear power in the next 10 years.

Singh, after all, counts the historic India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement signed in 2008 as one of the big accomplishments of his reign as prime minister, so it's not a huge surprise that he's still doing whatever he can in this area to keep the nuclear flame alive.

But does India need nuclear energy? That has been a major debate that has roiled the country in the last several years post the pact, especially during the construction of yet another reactor at the seaside town of Kudankulam, in the state of Tamil Nadu. With the specter of Fukushima still fresh in everyone's minds, going ahead with a reactor on a coastline that was on the receiving end of a devastating tsunami that killed close to 250,000 people in the region not so long ago is a colossal act of foolhardiness, argued opponents of the project. The fact that the reactor has been regularly facing technical snags is not going to make people sleep any easier.

However, safety aside, a leading Solar energy think tank, Bridge to India (BTI), said that just from an economic viability standpoint, solar seems to make so much more sense than nuclear. According to BTI, the cost per unit at the 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant is around 9 rupees ($0.15) per kWh, while those from the 6,000 MW Mithi Virdhi Nuclear Power Plant may even be as high as 12 rupees per unit ($0.20). Cost of power per unit from coal-based plants are around 4.5 rupees ($0.07) today.

As BTI went on to explain, the extremely high capex costs of a nuclear plant — between 300 to 400 million rupees ($6.7 million) — is what makes the unit price of power from these plants so pricey. Then, there's the time it takes to commission a project: Anywhere between five to seven years, but this is easily a best-case scenario (Kudankulam took decades).

On the other hand, BTI pointed out that wind power already rivals coal at 4.5 rupees per unit ($0.07). Solar hovers at around 8 rupees per unit ($0.13), and this will continue to fall as solar cells continue to increase efficiency and become cheaper, somewhat akin to semiconductors ala Moore's law (although at a far slower equation). Plus, solar projects can be put up in a flash (a few months at best), compared to the long gestation period for nuclear projects.

The one snag with both solar and wind is the large amounts of land required for these projects — something that has become a major hurdle for in the country's generally sizzling real estate market. Remember what happened to the Nano project in West Bengal? Then, there's the poor capacity utilization of both wind and solar; without major advances in battery technology and fuel cell research, these will be mitigating factors.

But as BTI pointed out, with appropriate smart grid technology and other ways of bundling in a basket of cheaper and less-dangerous sources of power, India need not even roll the dice when it comes to cheaper power at lower risk.

Topic: India

Rajiv Rao

About Rajiv Rao

Rajiv is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi who is interested in how new technologies, innovation, and disruptive business forces are shaking things up in India.

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  • Solar not practical with current level of technology

    What experts don't say that a typical solar cell produce 150watts/hour per square meter. Therefore to produce 9,000 MW would require 60 sq-km of space only for panel, more like 90 sq-km overall.

    In a high population density country like India, with such high land cost, getting so much of space would not be practical.
    Further, most part of India, except maybe for Thar dessert, is enveloped in thing could 3-4 months a year during monsoon. This would be decrease the efficiency of solar significantly.
    In Thar dessert area the abrasive nature of sand storms would decimate the fragile solar panel and their life span would be very low.
    • Fals argument

      Solar can be placed at paces already used for other purposes - roofs, roads, railroads, parking lots, even agricultural land, while keep using it for agriculture (with too much sun and too little water in most parts of india this can even rais production !) -> for the last point there are test sites in Japan.
      So neither for 9.000MW, nor for 90.000MW nor for 900.000MW any -extra- squaremeter of land will be needed in India to provide solar power. And if this is not enough, deserts are very good plaves to produce photovoltaic power - so large areas unusabely for anything else.
      • Different Goals in Mind

        It appears that people want to find the silver bullet to make everything work all at once. Sharp arguments result from this because there is no clean solution all in one shot.

        However, remaining nimble in our approaches to the problem; continuing to rely on multiple sources for energy....using solar energy as a marginal source of energy for spaces which are not being currently utilized does in fact make sense.

        Additionally, when we think on MARGIN of whether to add a small unit of solar powered cell to the existing system, it becomes easier to integrate other elements into the system.

        Example from comments already provided. What do solar powered panels provide in addition to energy? They provide shade. Shade means coolness, moisture, condensation and allowance for establishment of other life forms, which then leads to other positive progressions from an ecological perspective.

        There are many historical examples where instead of mass implementations of a system, populations have experimented with small scale systems which were then developed and relied upon with more confidence as the knowledge increased.
  • This should be self-evident

    to anyone who looks at the problem through the use life cycle. Solar has no waste products which incur special costs at the end of life, and no one will be hijacking a solar plant to blow it up, for any reason other than to starve power to those normally provided for.
    • Nuclear today is not your father's technology

      Most of the nuke plants in the US and places like Japan with the failures are plants built or at least designed in the 50's. Something like a Pebble-Bed reactor is far safer and produces far less waste than these very old designs.

      Not even suggesting India build these but the debate should be honest as to what is the best technology. From my limited understanding of them, PBR can scale down to disperse them more and decrease the needs for extensive power grid updates.

      Whatever India moves toward, they need to get away from fossil fuels as this dwindling source is only going to increase in cost and hamper India's move to developed status.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • Stanford plan for 100% Wind, Water and Solar by 2050

    100% Wind, Water and Solar for all global energy needs (electricity, heating, cooling, transportation, industrial processes) by 2030-2050!