Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Illumi-not-ti

This is the first of my posts on a social note. It's deepavali today, and although people call it diwali, it essentially means 'Festival of lights'. Lights today are mostly powered by electricity, just like every other thing on the face of the planet. And my state is heavily in short of power. The sad part is, the impact of it is delivered onto the common man, and he is suffering. A recent move by the government promotes solar energy. I'm here to present to you my views on what's going on and what we can do.

Tamil Nadu's power

Tamil Nadu has its major supply of energy from coal [coal/lignite]. Next in the thermal category is gas. Then comes hydel, and then nuclear. Then in the list come wind and solar. TN does not have abundant reserves of coal. But it has lignite to power itself for another couple of decades. Nuclear power is always a hot topic for discussion. There is a power plant running in Kalpakkam, and hopefully another one might start its functioning at Kudan kulam. The next big star here is wind. This guy is crazy. He's really crazy. TN luckily can rely on Wind. It's available to use freely and the state has been tapping the resource for quite some time. Almost the complete wind generation capacity was contributed by private players, with the government's help of course. Chennai is now called the wind energy capital of India. The complete credit does not go to Chennai. The logic could have been like "Chennai is the capital of the state with the maximum wind energy generation and so, let's name it that way". But several global wind energy companies [Vestas, Gamesa, Toshiba-JSW, and others] have set up shops here in Chennai. This pretty much sums up the energy scenario.

Several reasons have been put forth, several excuses been made and several fingers have been pointed at [different persons] for the power crisis, which now stands at about 2000 MW [or about 9000 units].

The first ones to get affected by the deficit are the industries, especially medium scale and then small and micro ones. Then come the public. Today, a scheduled load shedding of 2 hours prevails in Chennai, and more than 12 hours of it everywhere else. Add to it the unscheduled powercuts.

As the condition worsens day by day, it becomes increasingly necessary to address the problem. One way to do it, is to increase the capacity. This is supposedly being carried out already, and if you haven't heard how, it's by thermal [mostly]. And what do we do till then?? Go Solar!!! [Tada!]

The Solar shift

This sudden, abrupt shift towards solar power is due to the ever widening supply-demand gap and the attraction it brings with it [Sun can power your homes, blah blah]. And the most ridiculous thing about this is that the primary target is the common man again!!

This is no different from the story of Mohammad bin Tughlaq. [Quick recap] This lunatic king has his country in shreds. Economic crisis, poverty, no money in system. The guy orders more money to be put into the system. And when his own mints can't do them, he asks every citizen to mint coins in his [citizen's] backyard. Result? Everyone has money. Tons of it. Prices go up now. People turn greedy. Mint more coins. Prices go up again. People get more greedy. Money loses value. Then, voila! He declares all such bronze coins void. Crisis goes from bad to worse. People die.

I don't want anything even close to that happening now. So here is my viewpoint.


It is a bad decision to make people go solar. If solar energy is the way to go, the government must first turn solar and be an example for it. Imagine. Where would you put your beloved solar PV receiver thingy?? On your roof. We here in TN use the roof for a variety of purposes, starting from drying off our clothes to the seasonal vadaams. And, it is quite expensive for a regular middle class guy to invest in a solar PV panel. The bloody gadget takes up about 2 lakhs [yeah, you can argue that we get subsidy and all those shit, but who pays for that? You! Can you get a loan for that??] and saves close to 10 thousand a year. Not to mention the installation charges, maintenance charges [nobody even knows if it is necessary to 'maintain' PV boards], and battery costs [50k for 5 years]. And add to this ice-cream the cherry of inflation costs, and you get a costly sundae of electricity independence. How cool is this?? Let's see.

Q: What are all the appliances that you can run with an SPV gen- Battery pack- Sine wave Inverter system?
A: Fans, Tube lights, Light bulbs, TVs [may be], Computers [may be], Mobile/Laptop chargers, etc.

Q: What appliances you can't?
A: Air-conditioner [Die!], Immersion heater/Geyser [Die!], Electric iron [Die again!], Mixer, Grinder and anything else that looks big.

So, if you want to run your day to day appliances, you still have to depend on the Electricity board.

Q: Why the hell is it attractive then?
A: Let me answer you this way. You can kiss powercuts goodbye. You can generate enough power to fulfil your household needs partly. You can be part of an invisible green movement.

As can be seen, this will be very useful to people who already have an inverter in their homes. And next come those who plan to buy an inverter. And then, those who can at least afford an inverter. As is the view of many other energy enthusiasts, this solar energy generation at your own house is like a luxury. Those who have a car know the benefits of it. And those who want a car know the costs. The solar PV cell does not give you complete freedom from the EB. It rather uses the sun to feed part of your needs. The savings it is capable of offering is used up by the maintenance charges for itself, and if at all it offers you anything, it is uninterrupted power supply at no extra cost. The other advantage of the SPV panel is that you free the grid of valuable space.

Space? Did I say space? As you can see, the grid carries electric current in conductors. And the more current it carries, the more loss in T&D [V=IR] occurs. So every ampere you save, is an ampere for someone else. Assuming that the conductor size and number are constants, you can rid the grid of a little ohmic loss and if that is not significant you can save that space in the conductor for someone else who is currently facing a powercut. Feels like Mother Teresa, right? Well, there is a check here too.

Since our billing system is based on total usage of energy in a month, we don't usually bother about our appliances. But when we have our own generating unit, we have to take into account the maximum demand.

Assume that you have a 1 kW unit on your roof.
Assume that it is receiving splendidly bright light on a clear skied day.
Assume that the efficiency of the system is 100%.
Assume that you use some 500 W power during the whole day [2 tube lights + 2 electric fans ~ 400 W (another 100 W kosuru)]. You are forbidden to consume more than 500 W at any point of the day.
Assume that your in Chennai and in the month of May when the sun shines for more than 12 hours a day.
Assume that your Battery-Inverter set offers no resistance.

Only in such a case, will you be totally free from paying your electricity bills. Yes! You need not pay a single naya paisa. And you get free uninterrupted power supply forever. If you can see, I have made a lot of assumptions, and if you can see deeper, most part of most of them are crazy. All this for a cost of 2 lakhs [initial] and 50k every 5 years. I have not included the case of the panel failures or other major breakdowns. The SPV panel and the battery pack have a 5 year warranty period.

Are you happy? Will you be content with 500 W? I don't think so. The solar power system today is nothing different from a car. Or a DTH system.

You pay for it [heavily]. You have fuel costs. You have maintenance costs. Other expenses.
But you can have a reliable system. You can drive to whatever place you want, whenever you want. You save humongously on time.

Same way, a solar plant to a common man costs high. Costs for battery and maintenance. But he can have uninterrupted power supply at his own will. And that too, green.

Also try

In order that the system doesn't go any more chaotic, i propose an opinion. My approach is bi-fold. You can tap solar power to feed yourselves, but you have to minimise your needs. Just advocating solar power will do no good. Minimise your electricity consumption. Save on that. And THEN go green.

2 steps to do that.

1. Minimise power consumption

A) Ban all incandescent bulbs. Those bastards have had their day, and it's more than time we said goodbye. Most of our domestic lighting needs are satisfied by fluorescent tubes. Replace them with LEDs. Use LEDs everywhere. In your cars, houses, streetlights, and pretty much anywhere you want light. Just to prove my point...

       40 W Incandescent bulb          - approx 400 lumens
       40 W Philips fluorescent tube - approx 3000 lumens @ 6000 K [colour temp]
       40 W LED downlight lamp       - approx 4000 lumens @ 5000 K

[Please not that all the lamps here are the best in class ones, with the highest lumens per watt available over the entire commercial spectrum]
[Also note that norms for LED lamping systems are still in their nascent stage. So, it might take a while]
[Further research on LEDs possible]

You might wonder if a step from fluorescent to LEDs is wise. Yes, it is but not as wise as moving from Incandescent to LEDs. Though the reach of the breakeven is slow in the former shift than in the latter, it is actually quite good for the system, because, we've just looked at the wattage of the fluo-lamp, not at its power factor. If you take that into account, you'll see the actual current it takes. And consequently the max demand. So shifting from either of the sources to LEDs is wise [Wiser than installing a solar power system].

B) Demand an energy certificate from every appliance manufacturer. A 3-star rated product is ok. But a 5-star rated product [with the same power intake] is always better. Ban all companies that do not improve the energy efficiency of their products. Encourage people to buy high star-rated goods. Offer discounts [even 100 bucks attracts people. This is the beauty of India], or an extra free service. Do whatever you can to promote  highly energy efficient products.

C) Maintain power factor. There are norms for maintaining power factor for industries, educational institutes and other commercial establishments. Extend it to residential complexes. It can't be done on individual houses. But people today moving towards an urban lifestyle tend to live in about 100 families per complex, where this can be very well established.

2. Go solar sensibly

The move to promote solar power to the common man is a welcome move. But I'll welcome it only after a decade. If you wanna go solar, one ought to do it in a phased manner. Not in a mindless chaotic manner.

A) Make solar power systems a must for commercial establishments. Movie theatres, malls, factories, etc. can afford it more easily than the common man can.

B) Introduce it to residential complexes first. Car parks, sheds and roofs can be covered with SPV panels and the power can be utilised for common loads like apartment lighting in common places. This exercise can also be undertaken in individual houses, duplexes and villas.

The extension of solar power systems to all houses will then be sensible [if at all there is a power crisis]. Make a deadline and get things done.

As a last word, I wanna say that I'm not a fan of solar going public at this point of time. I just wish people resorted to reducing their consumption than increasing their supply. I hope the energy crisis ends soon.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The rewind button

Only when we press the rewind button on our Walkman and then hit the play button at the desired spot in the tape do we realise that we’ve been lying to ourselves about the cassette player and that we’ve switched to digital music and winamp a decade ago. But if you do own a cassette player and more importantly if you do use it even now, you can understand that the mechanism of rewinding or, in some cases, fast forwarding is one of the many things [besides play/pause + record] why you bought that BPL-Sanyo tape recorder in the first place. And then months later, your ultra-cool older cousin got one of that CD-mans thus making your Walkman look like a grey-haired grandpa, however sleek it looked.
Ok, getting back to our discussion here, have you realised how much that has changed?? It took you precisely 1 minute to Rev/Fwd a 5 minute song. And in that 1 minute of waiting, your mind gets ready to sing along to that part of the song which will be reached at the time of pressing the play button. But today, we have digital music players where you can pin-point to your desired position and play it from there however many times you want. You can select positions in the track to be played in loop. You can do all this and much more at the touch of a button/finger. But the thing that bugs me is, we’ve been using such pointing devices since the early 90’s or something [I dunno], but even today, when movies depict time travel, they show a hi-tech contraption that can fling you back and forth in time, but in a tape-recorderly fashion. A person who travels from 2012 to 2000 BC has to wait in that time machine for a specific amount of time, where objects in front of him roll, scroll or pass by extremely fast before he lands on the desired time point. And if he wanted to go to 20000 BC, he’d have to wait longer. The farther you wanna go, the longer you gotta wait. If the inventor of the gizmo was really a smarty-pants, why did not he design it Winamp style? Touch the point of time you wanna go and you’ll be there in no time, in a non-linear or discontinuous manner?? Don’t tell me it’s not possible. This kind of jumping is possible even in gramophones, aka the big daddy to all cassette players.
So the cassette’s predecessor could jump, the cassette’s successor could jump, but the cassette cannot. Yet we don’t look at it as a disability, we all loved the Walkman very much, in fact more than the CD-mans. The only close competition to this device was the mono FM player, which had that edge over the cassette player in that it operated on a pair of AA batteries and you could listen to the commentary of an entire cricket match during a blackout. And here in India, both cricket matches and powercuts are everyday events [I’d like to mention here that I’m typing this on my laptop that says it has 83% charge left [82 now] and my locality is in a scheduled blackout]. The genius among folks had a cassette player + FM apparatus that ran on batteries and AC power. But unfortunately 2 batteries were seldom enough, and even 6 batteries could not afford to run the tape’s motor and then survive to power the FM. So our beloved cassette ruled happily next to its queen, the mono FM.
The time machine is just one example of how we’re all obsessed to slow continuous transition. Even in the best of stereo amps or music players or home theatres, we have round multi-turn volume controls, instead of Volume up/down buttons like the ones in their remote controls. Digital media players have analog controls, the FM radio app in my smartphone has analog scrolling, my refrigerator and my washing machine have analog controls [and yes, I look like a cave man in front of my neighbour who has one of those fancy singing fridges]. My point is, just like the volume knob in our music payers, change is slow. The more you wanna change, the more time it takes. But just like the volume button in the remote of the very same music player, change is certain. It won’t be very long before we get to say goodbye to the dial-knob. But as far as time-machines are concerned, I doubt if movies will ever resort to zippy jumping between points of time, at least not at the expense of their credibility.