Nepal Disaster Relief – True Solar Power

It’s unfortunate that it didn’t happen before the Nepal earthquake, lives could have been saved. What’s really sad is that we may still not wake up to it. After all, Earthquakes don’t strike twice…except they do, and natural calamities come in various forms.

The Nepal Earthquake Calamity

If it’s not the Nepal earthquake near Kathmandu and Patna, it’s the cloudburst in Uttarakhand, or landslide in the Kashmir valley, or draught in Vidarbha in India, or hurricanes in the US, or Tsunami in the south-east of Asia.

All these directly impact the most essential services severely and delay relief. Experience shows that the first essential service to be impacted in most calamities, natural or otherwise is the power grid and the electric supply. Because of the nature of the beast, the electricity transmission and distribution power grid is the one most susceptible to any of the calamities listed above along with being the prime target for hacking, terrorism and other man-made disasters. Large towers, long cables, many sub-stations, susceptible distribution poles etc. are always the first to give way leaving hundreds, thousands and even millions powerless without light, communication or clean drinking water which is so critical for survival while relief is awaited.

In Nepal for eg, hundreds of victims of the recent earthquake may have been saved, if electricity was not disrupted due to the falling towers and if power was locally generated and available even a bit. In a life and death situation its value cannot be overstated.

The loss of life and economy from the Nepal earthquake can barely be estimated, even so only, once the emergency relief work starts its slow withdrawal and life starts to get some resemblance to normalcy. One can estimate from a distant parallel where the culprit was the power grid. In 2001, virtually all of northern India was blacked out, after the failure of a substation, triggered the collapse of the country’s northern grid. Essential services, businesses, transport and essential supplies ground to a halt, affecting 250 million people and causing 107.1 million dollars loss to business in just 12 hours. In the 2012 blackout for 2 days, affected 700 million people, in 20 states, in India. The financial losses, were too large to confidently calculate, and too severe to publish.

The Nepal Earthquake Potential Future State

The more distributed power generating systems there are, the less impact such disasters can have and the more loss of live and livelihood can be prevented. In a distributed system there is no single point of failure that can bring down the whole system, as there is with centralized power generation. The impact of intentionally created disasters will also be minimized.

As eminent solar champion Jigar Shah tweeted, the role of solar power and by corollary distributed solar is now clear as inevitable if we are to be better prepared.

View tweet here

Popular Mechanics has identified solar power systems as a top life saving tool available for disaster management teams during and after such natural calamities.

However in a calamity like the Nepal earthquake where road access itself is cut off even this will be rendered ineffective when really required. If solar power is generated at any given location the need for towing in a relief solution, which itself poses a logistical problem (given that often roads are unplayable during such calamities) won’t arise.

Even if part of the solar power system gets damage the remainder can be quickly and easily be reassembled, hooked back up to provide power almost immediately, thus providing basic electricity, communication, water filtration etc. necessary to survive while the relief is trying to get there. In some cases it may take up to 4-5 days.

Out with the old…

The old model of generating electricity has always focused on generating power far away. This power then had to be transmitted over really long cables with transmission sub-station and distribution transformers and whole paraphernalia of expensive equipment before it’s of any use to the end consumer. No one’s to blame; the technology lent itself to such elaborate infrastructure. This model was held sacrosanct.

But that’s evolved! Solar PV technology has be available for decades to simply generate power where needed, making the old “essential equipment” largely redundant.

The distributed solar plants produce energy on-site, or near-site. This type of a solution needs no additional infrastructure and can be critical in disaster relief. A distributed solar power system may be simply on an empty rooftop or at a nearby location from where power can be sourced in case of emergencies. Such an enterprise would not have been possible with traditional resources of power generation like coal or gas plants. Solar photovoltaic technology however lends us that option.

Question the Answers

Given the same transmission and distribution system required, even centralized solar farms are no help, since they are equally vulnerable to such calamites. A better more resilient solution is to shift focus, to distributed captive solar now, so that democratic electricity is a life saving reality.

While it is critical that the proven solar power concept is aggressively championed and deployed on a war footing, it is unlikely that we will let go of the old anytime soon. Reason? Thinking “Small and Distributed”, when “Large and Concentrated” has been the norm takes a radical shift from convention. Not to mention the control that the few will lose over the newly independent and mostly self reliant electricity consumer.

While the headlines continue to extol “poster policy making” for ambitious targets of large and ultra mega power plants, the real revolution will quietly happen in the small but many

Leapfrogging a tech cycle like in Telecom, where instead of spending billions to make landline telephone access to everyone we skipped straight to cell phones is possible with proven solar PV technology. Instead of large scale investment in centralized power generation capacity and upgrading T&D, skip straight to localized distributed generation.
The time to champion the cause is now, not in the next few days when the world stars to get distracted by other events and we leave the memories of this disaster behind. Can we afford any loss of life because we never question the answers provided to our electricity problems?


Originally published on blog.sunipod.com

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Abhishek is a Solar Energy Patriot. At Sunipod he leads communication and awareness programs to help institutional adoption of solar power as a cost appropriate means to achieve business excellence and demonstrate social cognizance in India. For over 12 years he has helped developed new products and services and solutions for power industry helping Independent System Operators, generators and T&D companies to build practices to manage power and energy risks. He brings this expertise to foster institutional adoption of solar in India.He has a keen interest in incubating renewable solutions start-ups and promote entrepreneurial ventures supporting local communities. He has led various aspects of business development for start-up kpo/bpo projects by establishing alliances with leading companies in Market Research and Software Customization. Abhishek is a University of Michigan graduate. When he is not at Sunipod you can look for him in the mountains hiking, rock climbing or rafting. Look for his articles on blog.sunipod.com

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