Saturday, January 5, 2013

Here’s to a sunny future

Two retired engineers have come up with proposals that could solve our power situation. Tap the sun and get shade on the road in the bargain, they say
Visualise this:
Scenario 1: You are driving to the shopping mall on a hot February afternoon and the car is cool even without a/c. There is shade throughout the drive. Suddenly summer showers arrive. But there is no rain falling on the windshield, because 30 ft above the road, there are solar panels, fitted over the length and breadth of the road, quietly producing electricity with Nature’s superstar, the Sun, for the streetlights to burn and much else.
Scenario 2: You are sitting in an armchair under a tree in the countryside and enjoying birdsong, on the lawns in your house. You ignore the noise of the traffic, as it seems quite far away. There is a muffled chug-chug-chug and a feeble screeching sound of brakes above. For just above your property, that is 30 ft above your rubber plantation, is the railway line. And above that is the thoroughfare, where cars, buses and trucks ply. All under the shade of the solar panels above, with nothing between the panels and the sun. The trees and buildings are all below. Giant pillars on either side of the road support the whole structure.
Daring dream
These two scenarios, a two-tier or a three-tier system combining transport and electricity producing solar panels are what M. A. Chacko and George Jacob dream about.
They dare to dream big, though they are no strapping young men out to make a fortune for themselves. Neither do they think they are in Utopia. But the 75-year-old Chacko and 72-year-old George Jacob have the credentials to dream this big.
Chacko is a retired chief engineer who was in the Kerala PWD and did pioneering work in the roads sector, and George, a chemical engineer who was the General Manager of Kochi Refineries and CEO of Cochin Refinery-Balmer Lawrie Ltd. He was also one of the 400-odd experts (as adviser) involved in the start-up work of the Reliance Jamnagar Petroleum Refinery.
Think tank
So these ‘think-tank’ friends put their heads together and came out with this proposal to kill two birds with one stone. One, harvest solar power, two, make travel easier and more comfortable. “There is one more advantage in our second plan, in the three-tier system, which will be feasible only for new projects. It will make it easier to obtain land because landowners are not displaced. Acquiring land for such projects is the biggest handicap, usually. But in this system, since land owners can utilise much of the land, there won’t be a problem. Moreover, the land value also increases, along with this development. New projects like the Angamaly-Sabarimala railway line and the Thiruvananthapuram-Mangalore expressway can be constructed in this way,” says George. The solar panel roof-like structures for existing roads can be built along any wide road, like the widened Angamaly-Walayar NH-47,” says George. The solar power that goes into the grid placed at intervals can be used for homes, industries or whatever use, just like hydroelectric power or any other power.
Regarding the cost factor, Chacko argues, “Solar power can definitely be made safer and cheaper than nuclear power. With improved and cheaper panels coming into the market, it will be cheaper than power from coal or water. The environmental benefits of such a project are manifold. Our country cannot afford to go on in this manner, with cars and buses overcrowding the roads and electricity depending on availability of rain.”
As to doubts about such a gigantic structure being feasible, George clarifies: “Steel and concrete in the hands of structural engineers who can design anything are perfectly safe and solar panels will bring in money. It will definitely be cost effective.” The duo has presented this proposal at a few conferences and got people interested in it.
The opportunity to harness solar power, available to all, is greatly underutilised in our country. The sunny disposition of Gujarat in this aspect is enviable. Asia’s biggest solar park just opened at Patan district in Gujarat. Together with its other solar projects, it contributes two thirds of the entire solar energy the country produces. George’s stint at Jamnagar Refinery in Gujarat opened his eyes to the advantages of solar energy and the vast potential it holds.
“With the subsidies available from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, we can easily take up such projects, if the government has the vision and the will to do it,” he says.
Detractors of this dream, pause and ponder: What did people say when the Wright Brothers declared they might be able to fly like birds? Whoever thought that the metro rail would run in the middle of a road? If your great grandmother was told that in future, you would be able to see her and chat with her, sitting seven seas away, would she have believed you?
Maybe soon, flyovers would be passé and the buses and trains would not be this crowded and we would be viewing the scene 50 ft below with aplomb.