Sanjay Khazanchi, Chief Executive, Access to Electricity (India), ITT, explained that storage of electricity produced in off-grid solar power facilities is one of the biggest challenges in the uptake of solar power in rural areas. One of the challenges lies in the high cost and the other is the relatively short lifespan.
“In a solar mini-grid the pain area is storage. A solar plant lasts for around 25 years. The weakest link is batteries. They last for as low as two years and at most five-six years. For maintaining a solar plant for 25 years, you have to keep changing the batteries. It increases the cost of capex,” Khazanchi said. The institute is currently testing three new battery chemistries from across the world — lithium ion; advanced lead acid batteries being produced in Australia; and a sodium ion chemistry from a company in the US.
ITT is attempting to create the environment of a rural solar mini-grid in the lab, with high ambient temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius, to conduct lifecycle tests, along with replicating the load profiles seen by batteries in rural environment to see which battery performs better vis-a-vis the baseline of the existing technology.
“The intent is to see that the value these new technologies bring in would be far superior to the existing technology (lead acid batteries). Lead acid batteries in rural environment have their own challenges in giving adequate life,” Khazanchi said.
Newer batteries with extended life spans have the potential to attract more investors in the market, which is currently lagging despite big potential and high demand.
“Globally, the industry is watching how India is going to do the off-grid rural electrification. Unfortunately, the volumes we have on the ground and the visibility of the volumes likely to be there in the future is still low. It’s a catch 22 situation. Maybe since the technology is not there and storage is expensive because of that the volumes are low but if we bring in a solution maybe that would solve the problem and make it workable,” he said.
Deepali Khanna, Senior Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, explained that the uptake of renewable energy is still rather slow in India.
“By 2030, renewables would only be 17 per cent of the total energy mix in India. There is a lot more that needs to be happening here,” she said.
Rockefeller has invested $1.5million with ITT to resolve the storage crisis. Besides storage, Rockefeller is also looking at facilitating more energy efficiency appliances in an effort to make it feasible for citizen of rural India to use these.
“We have a situation where people want to go beyond light bulbs and productive use and are looking at if they could hook up a TV, a fan or a fridge. So, we are looking at how to get more energy efficient appliances because we know their capacity to pay for electricity is limited. They can’t pay more than ₹500 per month and that is also a lot when you are taking about rural areas,” Khanna said.