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Bottling the power of the splendid sun

By: Trans World Features (TWF)

Bottling the power of the splendid sun
Researchers in University of Missouri in USA and India's Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore are working together to design lighter, more portable and cheaper solar cells to power the lives of people in some of the world’s poorest, most remote places. Deepayan Sinha, Cullen Ecoffey, Erdenetungalag Erdenekhuyag and Tomás Orihuela report from both the countries

Farmer Jatin Kumar relies on kerosene to light his house in Fateh Nagla, India, a small village 200 miles southeast of New Delhi. He’s one of more than 300 million people without access to electricity in the Asian nation — a number equivalent to the entire population of the United States. 
 
Half a world away, University of Missouri grad student Alec Pickett is among researchers working to ease the struggles of people such as Kumar by studying ways to improve solar technology, using parts made in India. If all goes well, their research could someday lead to lighter, more portable and cheaper solar cells to power the lives of people in some of the world’s poorest, most remote places.
 
“Say that you have someone living in a tent,” Pickett said. “You can have roll-up sheets of the solar cells, put them on top of your roof, secure them down, and generate your electricity that way.”
 
Pickett’s work comes amid growing interest in solar energy in both the United States and India. America’s solar industry, which promoters say provided one in 50 new jobs last year, aims to generate 100 gigawatts of installed solar capacity — enough energy to power almost 17 million homes. India intends to generate the same amount of power, which studies show could create a million jobs there by 2022.
 
Besides sparking the economy, environmentalists say these efforts could slow climate change by reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
 
Mike Hornitschek, director of strategic development at an 11-year-old environmental company in St. Louis called StraightUp Solar, said energy from the sun had many advantages.
 
“Solar energy is better because it’s renewable, and you can use existing distribution systems,” he said. “It’ll continue to improve and get cheaper.”
 
But the path toward a solar-powered future is not without obstacles. There’s business uncertainty, such as the bankruptcy of Maryland Heights-based SunEdison, the largest U.S. bankruptcy filing of 2016, which rippled through the world. 
 
And there are changing environmental policies. Whereas former President Barack Obama wholeheartedly supported renewable energy, President Donald Trump has expressed far more support for coal, oil and gas.
 
“There are people that are now in charge of a regulatory structure that are ignoring the science, and that’s troubling,” said Bret Fanshaw, solar program coordinator for Environment America, an organization that raises awareness of environmental issues in the U.S. “I hope states won’t bend to the will of some powerful forces that are trying to keep us hooked on old and dirty sources of power.”
 
Investing in a solar future
 
In Missouri and across the United States, solar energy capacity is projected to triple over the next five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
 
One of the trade group’s sister organizations, The Solar Foundation, said jobs in the solar field had grown 25 percent in 2016, reaching the 1-in-50 figure last year.
 
Solar power is now the cheapest renewable form of energy in the world, surpassing wind, Fanshaw said.
 
Solar power’s increasing popularity can be largely attributed to net metering, which is the way utilities credit solar power users for all the leftover energy their solar panels create but don’t use.
 
“(Net metering) helps people save money on their bill by earning that extra credit back,” Fanshaw said. “There’s also tax credits for solar. There is a federal tax credit that I think is 30 percent of the cost of your system that you can write off.”
 
Against this backdrop, U.S. solar installations have climbed from 1,000 to 7,000 a year in five years, the solar trade group said. The increasing visibility of solar panels encourages more people to install them — and support renewable energy.
 
“The more people who go solar and see it around their communities,” Fanshaw said, “the more people are invested in the clean energy future that we need.”
 
Pickett’s investment in that future grew from an interest in basic science. At first, his research stemmed from a desire to understand the behavior of polymers, the chain of molecules in charge of absorbing light and turning it into current. He works 40 hours a week in his lab with synthesized organic polymers sent from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
 
“The cool thing about organics is that they are cheap, light and flexible,” Pickett said. “Apart from roll-up panels, you can have windows made out of transparent solar cells.”
 
They’re low-cost and easy to distribute, he said, and could potentially benefit people across the world — when engineers transform the raw technology into consumer goods.
 
“Organics are being used, but there aren’t optimized yet,” he said. “After the research and the written publications are done, the job of the engineers would be to apply that system to a product, and that could take over a decade.”
 
India’s high expectations
 
Such products would fill a huge need in India.
 
Already, growing numbers of families have started using solar energy to heat their homes, cook their meals and study at night. But lightweight panels could really help them. Most live in houses that can’t support the weight of traditional, inorganic panels made of heavier material.
 
“We are still using kerosene lamps to see something in the dark,” said Nagla, the farmer. “After sunset, kids in the village start studying (by the light of) kerosene lamps, because they don’t have any other option. It’s our only source of light inside our houses, and for outside needs, there’s just moonlight.”
 
Scientists in India, like those in America, are looking toward the future by working on lighter, smaller, more efficient solar panels and cells.
 
These include “floating solar panels,” said Gon Chaudhuri, chairman of Renewable Energy College in Kolkata, India. “India … has a lot of water bodies. Even if we capture just 5 percent of them, we can generate 300 gigawatts of solar power.”
 
Indian scientists are also working on devices called micro-solar domes, which capture light from the sun but don’t need electricity.
 
“This micro solar dome can concentrate that daylight in a dark room, which is useful for rural areas which lack electricity supply,” Chaudhuri said.
 
While there are no guarantees that all the research will pan out — or that political or business realities won’t interfere — many solar advocates are optimistic that people without electricity may soon get the power they need from the sun.
 
With strong worldwide support for renewable energy, Hornitschek said, “there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go solar.”