Solar better than nuclear for India: Experts

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.