India can become a powerhouse for crafting its own solutions

Solar thermal energy is a form of renewable energy that harnesses the sun’s heat to produce steam and generate power. In industrial settings, approximately 60% of energy needs are related to heating and steam production. Solar thermal energy plays a crucial role in addressing these requirements, offering an eco-friendly and cost-effective solution. However, ensuring a consistent and reliable steam supply for industrial processes remains a challenge due to the intermittency of solar heat sources. This is where solar thermal energy storage systems come into play, enabling the capture and storage of solar heat for later use, ensuring a continuous supply of steam, and reducing energy costs and emissions in the industrial sector.

Nikunj Shukla, Director at Waasol Energies (a joint venture of Waaree Energies), sheds light on the significance of solar thermal energy and its applications. In the discussion with IBT, Mr. Shukla emphasizes the potential of solar thermal energy storage in addressing India’s unique energy demands and the significance of tailored solutions for industries with high energy demands.

solar thermal - Nikunj Shukla

What is the inspiration behind establishing Waasol Energies and what is its mission in the renewable energy sector? 

Nikunj Shukla: Waasol Energies emerged as a concept during a discussion meeting in Delhi, organized by MNRE. The conversation revealed that a significant portion of India’s energy consumption was derived from thermal sources, contributing more than 55% to the overall energy mix. However, there was a noticeable lack of focus on addressing the thermal aspect, despite its substantial share.

While some solutions existed for domestic purposes such as bathing and household usage, there was a dearth of practical and industrially proven solutions. Given our background in instrumentation, we decided to take up the challenge. We believe that by combining thermal expertise with advanced instrumentation and automation, we could provide a valuable resource for industries to reduce their energy consumption. This, in turn, would contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

IBT: What are the advantages of using solar thermal energy storage in association with solar thermal systems, especially when it comes to industries or applications with high energy demand?

Nikunj Shukla: Before answering the question, it is essential to understand the significance of solar thermal storage systems and what solar thermal is. In process industries, 60% of the energy comes from the heating or steam source. The presence of a chimney or a boiler indicates that something is being heated, and this heating application is known as thermal. We can use solar thermal as a source of heating in this application. However, it is challenging to provide a constant steam output to a process industry, which requires specific temperature and pressure controls, while depending on the sun as the source of heat, which is unpredictable due to factors such as clouds and humidity. Therefore, it is crucial to store the generated heat source at a specific temperature and pressure to ensure the smooth operation of the process industry.

Solar thermal is an economical source of energy, and if we understand the end customer’s process well with their usage spikes based on per week or per month consumption, we can design it efficiently. The second stage, which is solar thermal energy storage, comes as an input. We have a solar thermal production house that operates from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. However, process industries require steam 24×7. Therefore, we must produce it during the production hours for sunlight and meet the 24-hour requirement. This combination requires smart calculation and a combination of mechanical energy, instrumentation skills, automation, people skills, and the physics of different engineering fields. Once we accommodate it smartly, it becomes one of the easiest solutions. We have installed over 120 projects across the country, and it has given an attractive payback period. The self-sustainable model without any industry grants or support is a significant challenge. This product must be self-sustaining, and the user must be happy and benefit from the solar thermal solution. Once we prove it, the market welcomes it. Our engineering team did a fantastic job with a precise survey before starting the project, and the execution was completed on time with a payback period of around two years and one month, which is very positive. This application is low-temperature heating, and if we can implement such applications in India, it will be a big game-changer for the country.

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IBT: What are the key challenges or limitations associated with implementing the STES system, sir and how is the industry addressing these issues? I mean, what are the challenges you as an industry veteran are facing? 

Nikunj Shukla: First and foremost, when working in the field of solar thermal, one of the most crucial concepts that we always emphasize in our office is patience. We cannot rush through tasks, as each project demands a significant degree of customization. Specifically, we need to pay meticulous attention to the minute details of the site. It’s not viable to apply a one-size-fits-all design to projects across various locations. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to carry out tailored calculations for each site, considering its specific location and consumption patterns. Once this meticulous approach is applied to system design, we can achieve exceptional results.

Our most significant challenge lies in finding individuals who have a solid understanding of this subject matter. Additionally, another challenge we face involves cultivating patience among our customers. The nature of our work requires a collaborative effort between Waasol and the customer, as opposed to a scenario where Waasol merely provides a solution and withdraws. This approach necessitates hands-on teamwork, with all of us working together as a united team to successfully complete the project. This cooperative approach has indeed posed challenges for us thus far. Nonetheless, we are fortunate to have Mr. Hitesh Joshi, who consistently serves as a source of inspiration, offering valuable visionary insights that enable us to provide well-thought-out solutions to our customers.

IBT: Are there any recent technological advancements in innovation or in the STES that have the potential to revolutionise this industry? And also sir, how could you elaborate on its current status in the Indian landscape, the current status of solar thermal energy system? 

Nikunj Shukla: This segment deals with the nature of solar thermal energy storage, particularly its success in handling ultra-large capacities exceeding 100 megawatts. The viability of such thermal storage diminishes at smaller levels. This leads to the question of whether you should have an ultra-large facility for the plant to be operational or if it’s unfeasible on a smaller scale. Solar thermal energy applications are better suited for mid-sized industries. It’s time for industries to collaborate and offer customized solutions on a relatively smaller scale, not limited to ultra-mega utility-scale projects, to cater to smaller businesses that require space for solar installations. This approach also necessitates a certain level of initial investment.

We are actively working on solar thermal energy storage with a mechanical input, which is considered the most cost-effective solution. We are getting closer to a breakthrough. Soon, we will announce a solution that has been developed by Indian engineers and initially designed for India. We plan to implement this solution around May 2024, and it promises to be a scalable solution ideal for mid-sized industries.

IBT: What do you envision as the future potential and growth prospect for STAs(?) in the renewable energy landscape?

Nikunj Shukla: When considering the economics of the energy sector, it becomes evident that India has made significant progress in the realm of solar photovoltaic projects, both on a domestic and global scale. However, a notable challenge arises in terms of generating power during peak hours, necessitating a practical solution related to energy storage.

The fundamental question at hand pertains to the efficient storage of energy generated during daylight hours, whether sourced from solar, thermal, or nuclear means. The significance of this matter cannot be overstated, even if India were to transition a significant portion of its energy production from thermal sources to solar power. The absence of an economically viable energy storage system poses a considerable challenge to realizing the full benefits of widespread solar implementation across the nation.

In response to this challenge, collaborative efforts have been undertaken, involving various power plant stakeholders and engagement with industry experts. The objective is to explore solutions for solar thermal energy storage, as conventional electrical battery systems are notably costly, and the industry has yet to reach a breakeven point concerning the cost of energy storage through current methods. It is believed that a thermal energy storage system represents the most suitable and potentially the sole solution to address this energy storage dilemma effectively.

Given the substantial infrastructure established for solar photovoltaic projects and related initiatives in India, the primary focus should center on the development of solar thermal energy solutions. It is anticipated that the implementation of such an energy storage system will prove to be a pivotal and transformative solution for the country’s energy needs.

IBT: What advice would you want to give to the upcoming entrepreneurs?

Nikunj Shukla: I believe it’s a day when we must collaborate our skills with the right individuals. India possesses a vast pool of talented youth, which is set to be highly valuable in the near future. Fortunately, our nation is blessed with skilled and intelligent youth. Historically, technology has been developed in European or Western countries and then transferred to China for cost optimization before global execution. This has laid the foundation for our aspirations.

I now think that, given the evolving scenario and the diligent work of Indian youth, India can become a powerhouse for crafting its own solutions. This is beneficial not only for India but also for the global community. However, it’s essential to recognize that India’s requirements for solutions, especially in the realm of solar thermal technology, differ significantly from Europe, which has a smaller number of boilers in comparison to India. To address this, India needs to develop solutions tailored to its unique circumstances. This requires close collaboration between our youth, academic institutions, government, and corporate entities, and I find it feasible to propel this initiative forward.

IBT: What are your suggestions for the policymakers?

Nikunj Shukla: Policymakers should focus on solutions that are tailored to India’s specific needs. Importing solutions from other countries may not be suitable for India’s unique circumstances. Every country and region has its own challenges, and it is crucial to identify and address our specific issues with locally sourced solutions. This approach not only creates more employment opportunities but also fosters sustainable solutions, reducing our reliance on technology imports from other nations.

Nikunj Shukla, Director at Waasol Energies (a joint venture of Waari Energies). He has over 29 years of professional experience with MNCs such as Piramals, Baumer, Videocon & Waaree in leadership roles.

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