About the TiE-ISB Event

These days power availability has deteriorated significantly in Pune. Where I live, power is not available for about seven hours every day, including Sundays. The peak power shortage robs people of an essential resource during the most productive part of the day. If this is the situation in a major metro city like Pune, it is easy to imagine how hard life must be in most of India, especially for the 800 million who have to subsist on less than $2 a day, most of whom live in rural India.

That matter is worth pondering and that is what we attempted last week in the first panel discussion of the TiE-ISB Connect 2008 in Hyderabad: “Next 800 million: Challenges and Opportunities.” It was chaired by ISB’s own Reuben Abraham. I shared the panel with ISB’s Mudit Kapoor, Vishal Vashisth of the Soros/Google/Omidyar Fund, and Clearstone’s Rahul Khanna.

Overall it is a frustrating experience. There is no hope of ever reaching any clarity on the problems and how they can be solved. There is just not enough time to even scratch the surface of a huge topic like that. I am persuaded that the whole exercise is a waste of time. But it was fun to just have an informal discussion with a bunch of smart people. I made my usual pitch about the need to urbanize the rural population — and that we have to build new cities.

My main job was to chair the next day’s first panel discussion. It was simply called “Energy.” The panelists were Gitesh Sarma from the Atomic Energy Commission, Venkat Kode from Solar Semiconductor, Manoj Gupta of Nexus, and Satyam from GridPlex. As the moderator, I had the privilege of going first and talk of the big picture.

If you have been following this blog, you pretty much know what I think about energy. It is the most important constraint that India faces. After all, energy is the primary resource. All other resources can be managed quite well provided energy is available. Take water. It is a critical resource and fresh water is in short supply in many parts of the world. Yet, if energy were cheap, you could desalinate sea water, and recycle and reuse after purification to your heart’s content. There is no water problem if energy is available.

The same goes for food. Growing huge quantities of food basically requires lots of energy. The US agricultural system — one of the most productive in the world — is essentially a mechanism for converting energy (which unfortunately in their case is mostly petroleum) into food. So if you have energy, you have food.

Human civilizational progress is a story of advancing technological capability to harness and use energy. Every modern economy depends heavily on energy. Energy and economic growth, energy and economic prosperity — these are hopelessly intertwined. So how is India doing in terms of energy?

Let me give you a number that would speak volumes. In India in the year 2008, the annual per capita total primary energy availability is 3.7 Mwh (mega watt hours). That was the world average in the year 1900. India consumes per capita the same amount of energy per capita as the world did 108 years ago. Is it any wonder that India is really poor relative to the rest of the world today?

What India needs to do is to figure out a way to meet its energy needs for now and for the future. It should get out of the business of aping the west — such as sending moon probes in 2008. It has to think creatively and develop its own technology instead of begging the US for nuclear power technology and then go about pleading with Nuclear Suppliers Group for fuel. What India needs is not shots to the moon but a national effort to develop solar technology.

Eventually some corporation in some part of the world will develop solar technology. And when that happens, India will once again be a follower rather than a leader. India needs to become a solar superpower.

I have more to talk about what happened at ISB. Next post.

3 thoughts on “About the TiE-ISB Event

  1. plodder Friday November 28, 2008 / 3:36 am

    An interesting debate on the possibility of solar energy to address India’s energy needs….
    Currently, photovoltaic technology is still not practical enough for converting solar into electric energy, primarily for reasons of efficiency. Commercial systems use photovoltaic cells that have efficiencies (i.e. solar to electric conversion) ranging from 10 – 20%. Of course technological advances have improved efficiencies to as high as 40% in the lab (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell). So there is hope that this will change for the better in the future

    However, the use of solar energy applications such as water heating, cooking, drying (clothes, crops etc.) and home space heating (during the winter) have been found to be commercially viable. For example, the conversion efficiency for commercial water heating systems is around 30% (http://itdg.org/docs/technical_information_service/solar_water_heating.pdf). Solar based water heating is currently used in commercial installations all over India.

    Also, instead of the photovoltaic method, using solar thermal energy to produce electricity seems to show much more promise with mega projects going on line (http://ecoworldly.com/2008/04/12/mega-solar-the-worlds-13-biggest-solar-thermal-energy-projects/). Perhaps, one could consider using the Thar desert as a prime location for such solar thermal projects?

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