Do you use solar energy, was the first question Dr Chetan Singh Solanki asked me as soon as the meeting started. I feebly replied, yes…probably in solar-powered calculators and watches. I don’t mind admitting I was slightly nervous; after all I was sitting across the Associate Professor of Indian institute of Technology Bombay’s Department of Energy Science and Engineering. Also, did I not mention he holds a PhD and has 15 years of experience in the solar field!
Like a true teacher, he sensed my uneasiness and smiled and told me it was ok…most of his students at the premier institute do not answer correctly as well. He said the answer is very basic…we use solar energy to dry our clothes; even plants use it for photosynthesis. Well, we did learn that in Grade 1! I wish I had answered correctly.
Dr Solanki, who is also the Chairman of kWatt Solutions, then spoke about the importance of this abundant flexible energy in today’s energy crisis.
It has secured seed funding of INR 2.5 crore (approximately US$400,000) so far.
So what does kWatt actually do? Standing for kilo watts, the startup is a technology-driven company focussing on energy optimisation and technology customisation to provide economic renewable energy solutions. This essentially means it provides energy solutions to homes, educational institutions, hospitals, hotels, factories, and so on.
“India is not rich in conventional fuels like oil, gas and nuclear. Our dependence on import of these fuels and ever increasing prices makes electricity unreliable and expensive. There is need to demonstrate and practice alternative electricity solutions which are environment friendly, and, more importantly, cost-effective. With advancement in solar Photovoltaic technologies and significant reduction in the prices, solar electricity, even today in many sectors, is an economically viable alternative to grid electricity,” stated Dr Solanki.
“Due to lack of appropriate and accurate information, many people are not aware about the fact that solar electricity is cheaper for them than grid electricity,” he added.
To drive home the point, he said that solar energy has been on this planet from the day life evolved. It should really not be a big deal, but be a part of everyday living. All energy, except nuclear, is in fact derived from solar.
kWatt has three focus areas: training, products and services, and helping build India’s solar infrastructure. All the areas work hand-in-hand.
Firstly training and academics is a major focus point. There will be a dire need for skilled professionals as the market expands and kWatt wants to work towards building that talent. It is building a ‘solar-immersed’ institute in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh that will teach solar technology via experience. The eight acre property will house 100 students that will experience solar from morning to night – be it learning, recreation, cooking and everything else they need on a day-to-day basis. kWatt will conceptualise and run the show and it will be backed by investors.
Work on the first institute is already in on and it will be launched by December this year. Going forward, plan is to open about seven such institutes in India.
The second aspect is kWatt Solutions. Like mentioned earlier, this includes providing solar products various customers. It has so far provided solutions to homes, academic institutions, housing colonies, banking businesses, etc. The company has made INR 90 lakh (US$144,000) in revenue since launch.
Along with it, it is also working towards building a solar ecosystem — solar entrepreneurs, local partners, skilled technicians, etc.
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Thirdly, the startup wants to work to build India’s energy infrastructure. Dr Solanki shared that the country has made very little development in this field in the last 67 years since independence. The average consumption per person per year in the country is 800 units, whereas the world average is 2600 units. Shockingly the average in developed countries is 12,000 units. India has the capacity of 250,000 mega watts. This needs to be scaled up to 800,000 mega watts, which will require resources, time and money.
People behind the company who wants to invest in the Sun
The team comprises Dr Solanki, IIT graduates Atul Jain, Gaurav Tare, Nikhil Jain, Sumit Chhazed and Shreyans Gandhi, along with entrepreneur Pranav Pachori and Gulab Singh Girase, ex Director of Maharashtra State Electricity Board.
Initial investment a challenge in India
Dr Solanki claimed that currently there are no players in India that fill this need i.e. providing solar solutions that provide a kilo watt of energy. He explained that a single kilo watt is sufficient for a middle class household in India. An upper middle class home may need two-three kilo watts.
IIT Bombay has one mega watt power plant that helps the institute save money and also create the solar experience.
He, in fact, said that solar energy is actually cheaper than coal energy. All it takes to generate voltage is put the device under the Sun, whereas coal is imported from Indonesia with huge costs.
So the next logical question was why is it then not widely adopted? The real cost of using electricity is low, it is better and environmental-friendly – so what is stopping us from making the switch?
The main barrier is the initial cost of investment. A middle class household will need to put in INR 1.2 lakh (US$1900) for a solar panel. This will easily last for 25 years, but the cost is high. So it is easier for families to pay a monthly fee, which runs into a few hundreds or thousands.
Our country lacks infrastructure to support solar energy like we have for coal, which is almost 150 years ago. Solar is just about 20 years old. So it will be a while – and will require a lot of government support — till solar is distributed in households.
Working towards a bright future
There is a big opportunity in solar technology in India, believes Dr Solanki. Last year saw the country consume 20,000 mega watts of solar energy. The new government has increased the target five-fold and it looking to generate 100,000 mega watts by 2022. This is the time for solar startups to rise and shine. If they have the right mode, they can kick off.
What works for us is a team with a sound technical knowledge and the backing of the National Centre and IIT Bombay, signs off Dr Solanki.
We need such enterprising startups to solve India’s energy crisis and we wish kWatt good luck in its ambitious plans!
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