Category Archives: energy

Selco’s Lab, Ujire

Where it happens...

Finally had a chance to make it to the Selco Incubation Lab housed at SDM Institute of Technology, Ujire. It is a small place, with 2 full time employees (one of them a graduate of IISc). It is managed by a person named Anand Narayan, who is now a farmer (his previous profession being in the wireless industry in the US).

Anand (left) and the principal of SDMIT at Anand's farm

The main focus here is to bridge the technology gap at the ‘last mile’, as Anand puts it — Working with farmers, artisans, vendors to find out needs and coordinating with companies/institutions to get the technology part done. They do some in-house work, but have too few people and underfunded to do many things on their own. Since SELCO is a famous name throughout the world, they get numerous interns from places like Cambridge and MIT (Through the Engineers without Borders and such programs) who spend the summer developing interesting technologies, like cookstoves with thermoelectric generators which can be used to charge mobile phones and animal repulsion systems for coconut trees.

They also spend quite some effort field testing equipment like stoves and lighting and giving valuable feedback to the manufacturers. For example, they deployed LED lighting in barber shops, vegetable stores and found out the reasons why they are not preferred. A design student then tried to address the issues and came up with multiple innovative lamp designs to suit their needs.

Another area is water quality testing, and they do such tests for samples submitted from nearby areas (including from Veerendra Hegde’s home!). Some interesting things I spotted there:

Different cook stoves being tested -- no 'one size fits all' policy!
View of the lab...
Some of the people and stuff they worked on here...
Combined Solar/Biomass based dessicator -- used for local food processing, especially bananas
Rice dehusker

The commitment to make a difference in the lives of potentially thousands of people is quite inspiring, and to see people who worked on ‘high’ technology doing things that would be looked down upon as low-tech is a useful exemplar for all.

The good part is the strong focus on immediate deployment rather than to focus as a museum, and attempts to encourage local entrepreneurs to disseminate the products, which is far more sustainable than a donor-based approach.

It was an interesting experience, and hope to see more and more interesting things coming out of this place.

The real ‘engines’ of growth

One notices a funny dichotomy when one flits through publications catered toward different sections of society, like India Together and The Times of India (if one can actually call it a ‘news’ paper anymore). One set seems to tell us that everything is going to hell and the other seems to paint an extremely optimistic picture of the whole thing we call liberalisation. Since people usually buy that which they relate to, it follows that both pictures are true: the excruciating poverty and the sleek new capitalism.

Society can never be comprised of watertight compartments. It is more likely to contain personalities who occupy the continuum between the two extremes. Take Bangalore, my favorite example. The slums are a picture of scarcity whereas the IT SEZs are a picture of excess. It is highly unlikely that the lower strata of society will gladly give their scarce resources to a population that already has too much. Someone must be doing it, for a price, of course.

Usually, the technological artifacts of an age represent its zeitgeist. The F-1 car is to me one such symbol of this era. It has all the striking features of our society:

  • High performance
  • Very high levels of organization (in terms of car design)
  • High dependence of the whole on every single part (heard somewhere that the car won’t even start if all components are not working properly)
  • Requirement of relatively ideal conditions (very wide, flat tracks, almost fricitionless profile, specialised tyres, etc ., )

The current financial crisis can be compared to a car crash due to failure to adhere to ideal conditions. Something fails, which brings down everything else. If you read any material on supply-chain management, you’ll understand what I mean. This is why Chinese melamine finds its way to the breakfast tables of half the globe. In comparison, the society of a century ago was like a Kinetic Luna – not very complicated, low performance (in terms of economic output), easily maintained by the owner herself (assuming minimal savviness), and useful in potholed roads.

With such stringent requirements, most modern corporates are willing to pay a high price to ensure that they get the resources they need. It is only when ideal conditions are created will it perform at desired levels. The march of the corporation in India has unfortunately turned into a zero sum game which is also unsustainable, quite like running a Ferrari in Chickpet. You have to break things down to give it room, and make sure nothing comes up later. For the Ferrari owner, life is good, but not for the person whose house was pulled down.

Thus, it is not quite the IT czars who are spearheading ‘growth’ in India or anywhere else, but the people who break things to make way for them. In an era of ever rising populations and decreasing resources, the industrial society requires resource allocation which is quite disproportionate to the number of people it represents.

A few examples are in order. Take the case of land in and around Bangalore. Scare resource, no doubt. But if one saw the number of IT parks coming up before this financial screw-up, one could easily think otherwise. This article (watch the embedded video!) describes the land mafia in Bangalore and the important players, including Muthappa Rai, who was interviewed for the article. It is an open secret that if you need 10 acres for building swanky townships or glass-enclosed IT greenhouses, you go to the mafia, not the government. Pratically everyone in Bangalore, especially in extension areas, lives on illegally occupied land, which later the BBMP is forced to regularise. Those who lose out on land are farmers and who lose out jobs are unskilled locals (due to huge migration), and hence arise organisations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike which are kept in check by the police. The mafia to disenfranchise, and the police to keep it that way. Neat idea.

Water is probably hitting Bangalore more than any other resource, and the trenches are occupied by the private water tanker operators. Like the article shows, a single operator may deliver 50 – 60 loads of water a day, each of roughly 20,000 liter capacity. This adds up to mind-boggling numbers, and this was more than a year ago. I have myself seen Leela Palace getting atleast 10 – 15 tankers of water at 5 AM in the morning. And the website says:

Ensconced in 9 acres of tranquility that includes an azure lagoon, The Leela Palace mirrors the lushness of the Garden City. Harking back to the royal heritage of the Vijaynagar Dynasty, our hotel earns it name by showcasing gold leaf domes, ornate ceiling and grand arches.

They have a freaking lagoon!! This issue is becoming global. This set of pictures shows what can be, and is not very reassuring. Also, years of industrial farming is taking a toll on land and water, with desertification of erstwhile farmlands becoming a major issue. Farmland drops, food is scarce, starvation and conflict are inevitable.

The recent flare-up in Maharastra has also to do with appropriation of jobs (which are getting scarce nowadays!) by Biharis in the Railways. The fact that railway ministers for the past 12 years have been from Bihar may have something to do with this. The actions of the MNS may not be justified, but the resentment unfortunately is.

Another gory example is that of coltan, used extensively for manufacture of computer chips. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of it is available in Congo, which has a war going on to secure these resources, destroying everything in its path. Like this article says:

More profitable than gold or diamonds, and more easy to extract, is the rare substance, colombo tantalite, known as coltan, an essential ingredient for microchips and cell phones. Found almost exclusively in eastern Congo, it can bring in a whopping $400 per kilo in the international market, giving rebel factions and neighboring governments a financial reason to keep the war going indefinitely. Only when the Congolese conflict caused a temporary suspension of coltan mining did the western world feel the reverberations of a war it had all but forgotten: Sony was forced to delay the launch of its popular Play Station 2.

My My. The poor rich kids must have found it intolerable without their PS-2s.

The unfortunate reality is that we have designed a system where comfort and excellence is almost always at the expense of the powerless and weak. There are very few daily activities that we can perform without directly or indirectly grabbing something from someone else. It of course comes packaged in hygenic tetra-paks, but the people driving our ‘development’ be it the State, the crime lords or those who exploit nature are getting their hands dirty enough for all of us. The world is going nuts, as it has been from a long time, but never before has the resource crunch affected us like now. Blame the population problem or WalMart, it is high time we learn to live within our (material, not financial) means.

Yup, word limit reached.

Rural energetics

All energy we use is sunshine. Apart from nuclear, that is. Oil, Gas, Wind, Hydro, Coal, all these are direct or indirect products of the 1300 W/sq mt that we get from the sun. Since energy in some form or the other is crucial for life, boredom and joblessness encouraged an analysis of the flow of energy in a rural system.

The study of any kind of matter/energy cycle usually requires three concepts: stock, flow and flux. Stock is a reservoir of material/energy. Flow is matter/energy in motion, and is interconvertible with a stock, a lake and a feeder stream for example. Flux is matter/energy in motion that cannot be converted to a stock, like insolation or wind.

Most of the easily available sources of energy are fluxes, which can be tapped as the move past us for our use. For example, birds use the rising thermals to facilitate flying (An interesting thing is that only birds which have very small chances of eating daily use the thermals most efficiently, like eagles and kites. Herbivores have far more rapid wing-beating, since they are always close to the ground and food is abundant). Similarly, we use windmills, grow crops for the same reason.

The most common energy source in a rural system is biomass (including animals). Remember, energy is not only what we use to switch on our bulbs, but also what we eat in the form of rice/wheat etc., Biomass in various forms like trees and their products, animal meat, oil derivatives from plants, dung and foodgrains. Since plants also tap fluxes of energy from the sun and water, this implies that most rural activity happens by harvesting energy. Unlike other organisms which use most of their energy in the search of more energy, most energy needs of humans are for modifying ecosystems. We build houses and spend energy keeping it habitable. In rural systems, most energy is spent on agriculture. Crop ecosystems are highly unstable and need continuous inputs of energy in the form of human intervention to keep them stable. Leave a standing crop unattended for enough time and it gets decimated by ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’. Weeds and pests are names given to organisms which are usually adapted better to survive a competition with food crops for scarce nutrients and water in a given ecosystem. Thus, it is hardly any surprise that rural life and culture revolves around agriculture (especially harvests, which are the fruit of intensive energy inputs).

Another noticeable feature of rural energetics is the lack of any significant stocks of energy. Most people will keep just enough food grains to feed their families and sell the surplus, if any. Dead biomass is understandably difficult to store, and few landlords have large amounts of animals. Most rural energy needs are met, even today by the very primitive method of harvesting fluxes available everywhere. The few stocks of energy which are used, like firewood have very less energy content and are therefore extremely inefficient methods of storing energy. This lack of significant stocks of energy to exploit leads to a typically low energy lifestyle : The plough, the hand chisel, the bullock cart, lack of 100 storey buildings, low population densities, durable household articles which are used for generations, all are signs of cultures which understand their energy scarcity and dare not waste too much energy for frivolous purposes. Since grains and grass are the most significant and accessible stocks available, most things are done by human or animal power.

Coming to the flows of energy, flows can occur only between points of different potential, everyone knows that much from high school physics or using common sense. Water can only flow if there is a gradient, food will cook only if the fire is hotter than what is in the vessel. For energy flows, potential is usually measured indirectly by temperature. The hotter a substance is, the more energy it is said to contain. Since like we mentioned previously, stocks of energy are very small in rural systems, thus most energy flows happen between very small temperature differentials, mostly around room temperature. If one thinks about it, this is the way Nature operates. One can hardly find natural processes which happen across large temperature differentials.

The implications of such an energy profile is the following: Since the energy fluxes being tapped are inherently unpredictable and outside our control, nothing can happen in a rural system which depends on reliable sources of energy. Therefore, understanding the periodic nature of these fluxes and aligning human activity around them is an important facet of life. This being the case, any changes in this periodicity hits rural areas badly. The recent rains in India are an example of what can happen. Like we all know, climate change is going to affect food production. Rural industries which depend upon raw materials harvested from seasonal forest produce are also under risk if global energy and biogeochemical cycles get altered significantly. Therefore, rural systems should have a greater interest in maintaining Nature and her status quo than the urban sprawl. Understanding that overdependence on such energy flows is dangerous, those in the village that can afford it, build up stocks of energy. However, most cannot afford such stockpiling, and are therefore going to be the most affected in this era of climate change.

Knowing these facts, it is easy to imagine how an urban energetics would be like: the exact opposite of whatever has been said. What this implies and what lessons are to be learnt, later.

PS: I have not taken electricity into account, which is an extremely concentrated, non-thermal energy source. One can say that this analysis is somewhat relevant for a traditional rural society. Effects of electricity in the following post.

Electric cars: calculations

Was wondering how efficient electric vehicles really are, and made some back of the envelope type of calculations, and here is what I ended up with.

Total installed capacity : 128581.47 MW

Thermal : 84404.84 MW = 65.6%

Efficiency of Thermal (including coal, diesel and gas) :

contribution of Coal – 82.48% at 40% efficiency.

contribution of Gas – 16.09% at 60% efficiency.

contribution of Diesel – 1.5% at 40% efficiency.

Average efficiency = around 43%.

Hydro : 34085.77 MW = 26.5%

Average efficiency = 70%

Rest : Renewables and Nuclear = 7.9%

Average efficiency = 60% (bad for nuclear and good for wind, solar). Since we have no proper values for efficiency of renewables, keeping the value low.

Total efficiency of power generation in India = 51.5%, which is not a very conservative one, probably very optimistic!

All values were taken from the power ministry website.

Transmission and Distribution losses in India = 23% among the worst in the world, TERI. Thus efficiency is 77%.

Conversion from AC to DC for storage = around 95%

Conversion back to AC for driving AC motor = around 95%

Have assumed very good values here for more optimistic values.

Efficiency of AC motor = 90%

Overall efficiency = product of all above efficiencies = 32.2% !!! In comparison, petrol engines have efficiencies of 30% and diesel engines 45% !

Also since coal is the mainstay, and this has a calorific value of round 5000 Kcal/Kg, when compared to petrol and diesel, around 10000 Kcal/Kg, we consume more amounts of fuel to get equivalent performance.

Only saving grace is that one tonne of coal is considerably cheaper than diesel or petrol, almost 10-20 times.