A U.S.-India consortium could address the energy needs of both countries while reducing air pollution.
Among India’s abundant resources are sunshine and brainpower. Harnessing both through “cooperation and innovation without borders” is among the goals of the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States (SERIIUS), a binational consortium that could help meet India’s electrical power needs while simultaneously reducing air pollution.
“SERIIUS is an ambitious attempt to develop disruptive solar technologies that could pave the way for large-scale deployment in India and the U.S.,” explains Professor Pradip Dutta, chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and deputy managing director of the consortium’s India team. “It is an active collaboration of researchers from universities, research laboratories and industries in both countries, undertaken to perform research into cutting-edge solar technologies that have the potential to achieve significant cost reductions in solar power to make it viable.”
The United States also stands to benefit significantly from the research underway at SERIIUS, says David Ginley, chief scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and co-director of SERIIUS. Technologies being developed by the consortium have the potential to make solar energy cost-competitive with traditional energy sources in the United States and India in the not-too-distant future.
“There are real deployable outcomes coming out of the consortium. Things that otherwise wouldn’t exist. For example, we have developed new low-cost mirror technologies for [concentrating solar power], models for the viability of solar in India and advanced device models to improve the manufacture of photovoltaics,” says Ginley, noting that SERIIUS, which was launched in 2012 for a period of five years, is due to be renewed in two years. “The hope is that we’ll have a full 10 years to create really deployable technologies and that these technologies may be able to bring low-cost solar manufacturing back to the U.S. and strengthen our and India’s overall capabilities in solar.”
The collaborative nature of SERIIUS means challenges unique to each country can be addressed jointly, says Ginley. For example, bringing solar power to millions of Indians living in remote villages requires technologies that can foster local manufacturing of extremely durable photovoltaic panels. SERIIUS researchers are, therefore, working on ways to produce solar panels using technology similar to inkjet printing.
“With the right technology, you could set up a lot of little manufacturing lines in villages that would essentially do inkjet-printed [photovoltaics],” says Ginley. “Another major area we’re working on is reliability. India has very high temperatures, high humidity, lots of dust and significant pollution—all bad for [photovoltaics]. So, we’re working on ways to mitigate those issues and develop reliability standards for [photovoltaic] panels that will be deployed in India.”
SERIIUS is also working toward improving the efficiency of concentrating solar power systems, which typically generate electricity by using large fields of mirrors or lenses to concentrate sunlight to heat a working fluid to power turbines. The consortium is developing technologies for innovative power cycles like Supercritical CO2 Brayton cycle and Organic Rankine cycle, which are waterless, efficient, scalable and suitable for distributed power generation. These technologies are intended to bring the cost of concentrating solar power down to levels competitive with conventional energy sources and attract investment capital needed to build commercial operations.
“This has been one of our most collaborative projects, with outcomes that are already in the test phase,” says Ginley. “It’s an approach that could be especially useful in the U.S., allowing for a much broader application of [concentrating solar power].”
While SERIIUS is working on specific technologies to harness solar energy, it is also focused on bringing research institutions and industry together to reduce the time required to transform discoveries in the lab to commercially viable projects in the field. The result is an ongoing binational research infrastructure that will facilitate additional collaboration on ways to make solar energy increasingly viable in the future.
“The deep collaboration within SERIIUS is its main strength,” says Dutta. “There is bilateral collaboration at every level. Each research thrust has a co-leader from each country, and every project within a thrust has two project co-leaders—one from each country.”
The promise of solar power is immense—clean, inexhaustible energy that can improve the lives of millions of Indians and Americans, while also combating air pollution and climate change. SERIIUS is bringing that promise closer to reality.
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.