July 2006 | Jai Wadia
Here comes the sun
While the world is reeling under the burden of soaring oil prices, Tata BP Solar has been quietly and efficiently harnessing the tremendous potential of solar energy for India's cities and villages
"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that. This is no latter-day environmentalist speaking. Rather, these are the words of Thomas Alva Edison, one of the world's greatest scientists and the inventor of the electric bulb. Having pioneered the electricity distribution system, he had the foresight to understand a century ago that conventional energy is non-renewable and, as we go into the future, the world is going to run out of fossil fuels.
Today, countries across the world are reeling under the heavy burden of rising oil prices and are looking for non-conventional and renewable sources of energy. In India, Tata BP Solar has been harnessing the tremendous potential of solar energy to provide electricity and heating since 1989. A joint venture between the largest solar company in the world —- BP Solar — and the Tata group, the company has been developing solar modules for a wide variety of applications in urban and rural markets, in India and overseas.
"The Tata group has always had an interest in sustainable energy. In India, we have plenty of sunshine. This source of alternate energy will play a great role in the development of our rural areas," says Syamal Gupta, chairman, Tata BP Solar. A leader in solar energy in India, the company not only manufactures and sells solar cells and modules, but makes entire application solutions. Says AK Vora, managing director of Tata BP Solar, "We are unique because we focus on creating and selling complete solutions. We don't just sell modules, we add value to them."
Solar modules have now become a commodity. When a product becomes a commodity, it commands smaller premiums. According to Vora, one of the reasons why Tata BP Solar has been making profits since its second year while most major solar companies globally have been making losses, is that it sells complete solutions. For instance, the cost of a solar street light module is Rs12,000 ($260). But Tata BP Solar has added batteries, automatic electronic switching systems, the pole, and provides installation and service — a complete solution for street lighting at a cost of Rs25,000 ($540).
Besides being an alternative and cleaner 'fuel', solar energy benefits rural areas that have no conventional power, and remote places where it is difficult to take electricity. In urban areas, Tata BP Solar's products can decrease the use of noisy and polluting kerosene and diesel generators. Solar street lamps and water heating systems save precious fuel and electricity.
Tata BP Solar's wide range of products include portable solar lanterns, water pumps, solar water heaters and solar street lights. They have also developed customised solutions for areas such as health and education, as well as for computerising rural banks. Other applications include telecommunications, heaters for swimming pools in farmhouses, hotels and resorts, and power supply for offshore oil and gas installations.
The company was the first to develop solar modules that can be aesthetically integrated into the architecture of a building. Its Building Integrated Photovoltaic Modules (BIPV) are energy-efficient solar panels that can be integrated in the roofing. In the Samudra Institute of Maritime Studies at Lonavala, near Mumbai, three large roofing solar panels generate power —- the first project of its kind in the country. Hyderabad's Green Business Centre also has a roof mounted solar power plant that takes care of some of its electrical needs.
Solar thermal technology heats water that can be pre-fed to boilers for steam generation. MILMA dairies in Kerala have been using Tata BP Solar's 60,000 litres per day solar water heating systems since the last four years for pasteurisation, condensation and clean-in-place (CIP) applications. It has proved to be a huge energy saver.
Solar Road Studs are placed at busy traffic intersections or on dangerous and sharp road bends. They charge in the sun during the day and flash at night, providing a clear warning to drivers. Ecogenie, a solar power pack designed to power lights, fans and a television set, is portable, convenient and can be used in offices and homes during power cuts.
More than 50 per cent of the company's turnover is from exports through BP Solar, 95 per cent of which are to European countries. Vora says that governments there are greatly concerned about environment and energy security, and offer attractive fiscal incentives for solar energy devices. The company exports only modules, which are integrated locally into systems.
BP Solar has manufacturing units in America, Australia, Europe and India. But, says Vora, "The modules from our Bangalore unit are recognised as the best among BP Solar's customers. Many customers ask specifically for our modules. They are also 15 per cent cheaper than modules from the other countries."
In Asia, the company focuses on integrated solutions. Says Subramanya, "In Sri Lanka, we are providing our education package, Tejas, which can power computers. We have also supplied solar power systems to Bhutan for its telecom network." Tata BP Solar has also undertaken projects in the Maldives, Afghanistan and Nepal. In Bangladesh, the company has a nearly 50 per cent market share, and sells its products through a distributor. The World Bank is currently funding a programme on rural electrification that uses Tata BP Solar products. In Pakistan, the company recently installed solar systems in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's birthplace, Khaj, which still has no electricity — a goodwill gesture from the BP India office. The company feels that Pakistan represents a huge opportunity for business in the future.
Back home, people's attitudes towards solar energy are slowly changing thanks to the awareness being created through Arunodaya (meaning sunrise), a company division that focuses on education and awareness. "But we have to do more," says Subramanya. "So far we have been a quiet company, but we're planning to be more aggressive."
Starting from a small shed in 1989, the company now has two large units over 10 acres of land, and is still expanding. And though solar power cannot compete with conventional power at present, the company is hopeful that the situation will change in the future. In fact, recent power shortages in Mumbai have opened a window of opportunity. "It's a cleaner alternative. Generators give out smoke and noise; if they break down, people don't know how to repair them. Solar power is quiet, clean and convenient," says Vora.
About the future, Subramanya says, "The key to growth and success is innovation. We are investing in our people, developing new products and expanding our network. We have created an excellence cell with best practices from the Tata group, BP and global companies." "Our aim is to triple our turnover to Rs1,500 crore ($325 million) by 2009-10," adds Vora. "We plan to expand to 100 MW within five years, and double customer and employee satisfaction. Our vision is to be one of the most admired companies in the country." Tata BP Solar is showing people across the world how a little bit of sunshine can change their lives.