The Key to Solar Energy’s Success is to Make Knowledge About it Free

Rather than taking the predominantly profit-driven path of securing solar knowledge and its application as a commodity, solar energy expertise and its dissemination ought to be regarded as a commons.

A solar eclipse over Chennai, 2010. Credit: ishanmanjrekar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A solar eclipse over Chennai, 2010. Credit: ishanmanjrekar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Of all sources of energy for domestic and industrial use, solar energy is one that is freely available to everyone. The standard commercial rules of command and control of energy usage, therefore, ought not to apply for its use, especially by consumers with limited financial resources.

Solar energy research, in an ideal world, should thus follow the ‘copyleft’ route rather than the ‘copyright’, so that availability of this enormous natural resource remains equally unrestricted to every human being. In other words, rather than taking the predominantly profit-driven path of securing solar knowledge and its application as a commodity, solar energy expertise and its dissemination ought to be regarded as a commons, as non-commodified public knowledge.

In doing so, one hopes to end any ‘green elitism’ that surrounds the use of this totally public resource. Further, with universal engagement in research on ‘decentralised’ solar energy usage, one sees a route to greater individual independence and unrestricted sharing of this resource.

The role of centralised or corporate control being relegated to a minimum paves the path for ordinary citizens toward self-reliance and out of the extreme dependence of poverty. Just as literacy is a major step toward self-reliance of every person and in every community, awareness regarding solar energy is now turning out to be essential. 

It is hard to defend a hardcore anti-market, fundamentalist position in debating about solar energy. There is and will be a market for solar expertise and solar products. Moreover, there is no zero-sum trade-off between private enterprise and public endeavours in exploring ways in which solar energy can be better understood and used. However, even without taking an all-or-nothing view in this matter, there are reasons to feel anxious about the research practices that currently dominate the field of solar research, directing teaching and research toward what is commercially profitable and thereby shrinking the space of public knowledge. Paraphrasing Karl Polanyi, this commodification of what ought to be truly public knowledge is in reality a fictitious commodity dubbed ‘expert knowledge’. Such commodification takes the research out of public scrutiny, thus running the eventual risk of creating perils more than fulfilling promises.

The space for such public discussion, collaboration and cooperation gets diminished when through intellectual property rights and patenting we fence-off inventions, ideas, processes, and products and thus render what is essentially a commons of the mind a privately owned commodity. Fortunately, many major inventions in the world have not been patented. Two such outstanding discoveries are magnetic resonance imaging and the polio vaccine. The biologist Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine in the 1950s. When asked about who owned the patent, Salk remarked,“Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” In a similar vein, it is important to argue that knowledge and research on the Sun and solar energy too shall have to remain free from the confines of patents and licenses, since it can flourish only within predominantly non-profit surroundings.

In imagining human flourishing, Rabindranath Tagore’s rider was about a state where knowledge is free. Knowledge or expertise, therefore, is not necessarily free or straightforwardly benign. To bend the arc of solar knowledge toward solving public deficiencies would thus require collective aspiring and exploration as opposed to individuated and commercialised entrepreneurship. From this vantage point of approaching solar energy issues as part of an intellectual commons, let us dwell on the idea of decentralised solar energy use.

Decentralised solar energy

Mainstream methodology on harnessing solar energy has so far advocated and sponsored installation of large arrays of heavy-duty solar panels (as solar power stations) producing direct current (DC) electrical power at, usually, 12 volts. This is stored in large batteries and then converted to 220 volts alternating current (AC) electricity by inverters for supplying homes and industries. Often, the solar array is linked to the extant local electrical power grid to supplement the power supplied by the latter, with the provision that any excess solar electricity could be sold to the grid owner (government or private companies) for a reduction in the electricity bills of the consumer. This ‘solar grid’ framework is fairly common across the world.

However, the installation of solar panels, huge batteries and inverters is a major technical project, involving electrical and civil engineers, and therefore can only be undertaken by governments and/or large companies. Consumers of ‘solar grid’ electricity thus suffer from the same dependencies and deficiencies as the wired electric supply originating from thermal or nuclear power stations. Further, the repeated conversion of DC to AC (and sometimes back, for many domestic uses) reduces energy use efficiencies by as much as about 50% in certain situations.

In addition, having so many intermediaries between generation and consumption, like batteries, inverters and long distance power transmission lines, increases the likelihood of failure, not to mention the shock hazards that such high voltage electricity always poses. Finally, nothing in this framework is ever ‘user serviceable’. The alternative, thus, is ‘decentralised solar’ as opposed to grid-dependent solar.

Consider for a moment that most people in India live in small houses in rural or suburban areas. Most houses are also bathed in bright sunlight for most of the year (apart from the monsoon months). Why not then have individual solar panels for every household? Such solar panels may be connected by a short wire to charge a 12 volt battery of say 7-10 ampere hours (costs 600-900 rupees). During the sunshine months, a 12-volt 50-watt solar panel (costing around 1,500 rupees) can charge such a battery in less then three hours.

Now, 12-volt (or even lighter duty) DC appliances are now available cheaply in the market. An LED plate, supplying almost as much light as a 220-volt AC 18-watt CFL bulb, adequate to light up a medium-sized room, is available for about 150-200 rupees. Such an LED plate runs for more than six hours on a 7-ampere hour 12-volt battery. So, for an initial expense of about 3,500-4,000 rupees, a one-time expense for at least two or three years, one can satisfy the power needs of a small family.

Upgradation is trivial, first by having more batteries which the same panel can charge sequentially, and next by adding more panels if even more batteries are to be charged. Mobile phones, laptops, modems, even 12 volt audio systems are now available, not to mention 12 volt refrigerators and AC machines slowly appearing in the market. With a little training, almost all aspects of this framework are user -serviceable, requiring almost no ‘expert help’ or very expensive equipment.

The list of very affordable existing and prospective 12 volt solar energy appliances is actually endless: solar water purifiers for use in homes, schools, and primary health care centres and suburban hospitals, solar medical appliance prototypes like alarm-equipped saline infusion systems, solar powered hats and walking sticks for the visually impaired, solar powered nerve stimulators and pulse-beat monitors, all working without grid power and directly charged by solar panels in the building itself, with minimum transmission loss.

Solar cookers augmented with photovoltaic cells can save on precious and often limited supply of LPG to rural areas. Prototypes have already been built at such low costs that with mass production, the whole set can be made accessible to all Indians with quite modest incomes, for domestic use as well for use in schools and rural health care centres. Photovoltaic-augmented solar cookers can be very useful for cooking midday meals in primary schools and anganwaris, in areas where electric supply is yet to make inroads.

Finally, with a recent construction of a completely green solar-powered boat, made of bamboo and betel leaf composite material and running on supercapacitors (battery replacements made out of carbon nano-tubes) charged by solar panels, destruction of forests for construction of wooden boats, homes and furniture and using fossil fuels for water transport now could be a thing of the past.

The sun has made adequate provisions for saving the earth’s environment for millennia to come, daily providing more energy than humans use in a year, even at the current wasteful levels. It is up to us to use this glorious gift of nature in a collective and decentralised manner.

Manabi Majumdar teaches Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta and is also with Pratichi Institute, Kolkata. Parthasarathi Majumdar teaches Physics at the RKM Vivekananda University in Belur Math.