An idea follows a predictable journey. When it arrives on the scene it is ridiculed. Later it is criticised and resisted and then the tide turns and it is accepted. A common refrain among those who resist renewable energy is that it is intermittent.
Intermittence means the supply of power from renewable energy source is not guaranteed. It depends on the natural cycles like solar irradiation, wind speed, flow of water etc. As the pattern of these natural occurrence changes the amount of energy they generate also changes.
This intermittent nature leads to a lot of problem. When connected to a grid it is difficult to schedule it as long term as well as short term correct assessment of its availability can’t be predicted. However, new technologies are appearing on the scene to make the prediction more accurate. This, though, is one part of the deal. Another more important way of looking at the renewable energy and its intermittence is demand side management.
The 20th century energy or rather electricity supply has always been a supply side management story. Whenever and wherever demand arose electricity was supplied. When the demand peaked supply was increased to meet the demand.
However, with renewable energy the cyclical pattern of its production needs a quantum shift in the way we interact with energy. We are used to a master-servant relationship with it. Whenever we need it is there to serve us. This led to a whole sale evolution of our office habits, working habits and leisure activities.
Now the things will have to change a bit. And surprisingly the lead comes from the manufacturing sector as well as those rural areas which never receive electricity during the day time (And there are plenty in India even after large scale electrification).
Long years ago I was spending a night in a village in eastern State of Uttar Pradesh. At 2 am in the night I woke with a start. Blaring music was the cause of my loss of sleep. I saw a person was playing is cassette player which he had connected to the deck. There were few who were heading for the tube wells station to irrigate their fields.
At that time it seemed bewildering but when I was told that whenever electricity supply is on, which is rare in the village, the whole society comes alive and starts using all the electrical appliances. I found it amusing and for the next couple of hours entertained myself by just watching their activities.
Today after 20 years I feel, it was an extreme case of demand and supply side management. Yet it holds an important lesson vis e vis renewable energy supply. As far as India is concerned solar and wind energy have tremendous potential in both grid connected as well as off grid arena. In the wind sector it is generally seen that during the monsoon months (Between the months of June to September) the production of wind energy is the highest in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. However, a lot of it goes waste as the demand is subdued.
However, many agro-based industries can calibrate their annual cycle of production in a manner where their maximum production can be done during monsoon months and they can utilise this power which would be available at a discounted rate.
Another peculiarity of wind energy is that as the winds blow strongly and evenly during the night the best production of the energy is during those hours. However, during this time demands ebbs to its lowest. Companies with high degree of automation can shift their production schedules during the night in monsoon seasons to take advantage of the huge energy generation. It would give them high quality power at reasonable rate due to low demand while the producers will earn something out of this production which goes waste for want of buyers.
Similarly many production cycles can be shifted form night time to day time. The new demand side management premise is based on a fundamental new concept that the activities are planned according to the availability of power.
Intermittence can be offset if the manufacturing unit produces a little more on the days when it gets more sunshine or wind speed and on the other days it can take it easy. On a 30 day cycle the producers will realise that they haven’t deviated from the monthly production targets.
Adapting to cyclical production schedule means the industry and managements will have to think out of the box and will have to work around their bureaucracies. It calls for a change in the mindset which is the toughest part of the job.
I remember an incident. Solar water pump was introduced in an area and the villagers were shown how it works. The pump worked fine and as the sun rose it started functioning and at the sunset it stopped.
Everyone was happy, however, during the dinner time some villagers raised a concern. “It doesn’t’ work during the night how will we water our fields during the night?” The engineer who had manufactured the solar water pump was stumped. He had no answer. But his boss who was a son of a farmer himself intervened. He asked the villagers a simple question, “Why do you water your fields during the night?” They all replied, “Because we only get electricity during the night.”
The senior engineer smiled and said, “If you get that power during the day would you mind waking up in the night to do the same tedious work or enjoy a good night’s sleep?” Suddenly the coin dropped for the farmers. They realised that it was the lack of electricity supply for decades that had forced them to acquire the pattern of watering the fields in the night. It wasn’t natural. The right state was to water it during the day and fill up your tanks and sleep well during the night.
This subtle habit formation, created by supply pattern, which is now calcified in our behaviour that needs to change. The villagers were quick to realise their folly and changed overnight. Now it’s the turn of the urban dwellers, policy makers, manufacturers and business people to take the lead.