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  • Writer's picturePartha Pratim Basumallick

AlienSolar : A Venture Into 'Light'

Asato maa Sadgamaya Tamaso maa Jyotirgamaya Mrtyor maa Amrtamgamaya --- Brihadaranyaka upanishad

Looks a bit odd, doesn't it? I mean quoting Sanskrit lines from some forgotten book is not really how you start writing about solar power is it? Hmm . . . maybe not but then again maybe it is. So the only thing I am going to ask you guys is to stay with me for the next few minutes, meandering in and out of these three lines in search of their meaning. Trust me, the Sun has a very uncanny knack of breaking out of clouds and making the day.

Let me start by telling you an anecdote. Some 4-5 years back I was attending an outreach program in Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) entitled “Nucleosynthesis in Vitro”. And as is the custom of these outreach programs we students started asking about a whole lot of things that weren't really related to the lectures being given. One such question was about our energy needs and its solutions. The conversation went something like this:

Student : Sir, I was wandering about what are the best avenues for managing our future energy needs and how far will they be effective.

Professor : Well as far as the present horizon of our technology and science allows us to see, I have to say that Nuclear energy is the best we have got. The alternatives that could have been suggested instead of this are highly inefficient or do not live up to the cost-benefit ratio permissible by any reasonable budget.

Student : But aren't there bio-hazards related to that ? What about incidents like Chernobyl? Shouldn't they have any bearing on our decisions for the future?

Professor : Chernobyl reactor, let me say wasn't run by efficient people. It was run by housewives!! And anyway just because something bad happened somewhere doesn't necessarily mean that the other ideas are our only choice left.

Yes he did say all those things, and in case you are wandering, the scientist was from Germany, the heart of so many scientific and engineering feats. I am not even sure whether it is more sad or shocking that a man of his standing should not even consider that alternative energy sources like Solar power or Geo-thermal power is our future. But then he was a nuclear physicist, they hardly have the time to look at things bigger than the nucleus. The point of this anecdote is, that even in the world of science there exists dogmas, denial and opposition to ideas that can truly change the world. In order to pave the way for OUR future we have to weed out these dogmas and denials, these untruths that are so rampant in our society. We have to make a journey towards TRUTH from ideologies infested with self-deceptions. So the question becomes that when a scientist says something so definite does his opinion have no value? Is it completely codswallop? No not really but the cost-benefit ratio (so often brought against Solar power) is not the only thing you consider. After all when you try to balance out an equation you don't only look at the L.H.S do you? You check out the R.H.S at the same time. So I am going to present you with the other side of the argument – Benefit – Risk ratio. What am I talking about? Just follow me ...

This is one of the most singular devastating chapters of human history that was penned by us without any other contributing authors. It is estimated that, in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia alone, around 9 MILLION!!! People were directly affected resulting from the fact that the long lived radioactivity released was more than 200 times that of THE LITTLE BOY!!!! Ever since that day the short and sweet autobiography of Chernobyl reads – Chernobyl – 200,000 contaminated; 600,000 liquidators; $200 BILLION in damage; 350,000 people evacuated; 50 mln Ci of radiation. Probably this is the reason why the 2011 Ecodefence poster read:

Are You Ready To Pay This Price For The Development Of Nuclear Power ?

Now you may raise the argument, that reactor technology is improving and we aren't that vulnerable to incidents like this anymore. To this I have an one word answer. FUKUSHIMA. The problem is even if you are extremely careful you can never guarantee that no natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami will come along and wreak havoc with the radioactive arsenal you have unwittingly assembled. All it is going to take is a giant wave and/or mother Earth adjusting her blankets. If you thought Chernobyl was scary take a look at the radiation fallout of Fukushima incident.

Personally speaking I prefer having Solar power with its negative cost-benefit ratio(which is improving very rapidly) in comparison to this horrifying benefit-RISK ratio. The power maybe cheaper but even then it is way too high if it entertains the possibility of rendering an entire region as uninhabitable for thousands of years. If you are wandering why instead of championing Solar Power I am damning Nuclear Power then the answer is this, every single penny that goes into the development of something which may have huge irreversible repercussions, is not being spent on clean energy alternatives. And it is upto us the people irrespective of our station in life to ensure that we spend that money in advancing Solar technologies, in improving the alleged cost-benefit ratio, in ensuring that it has the capacity and outreach to several millions in the developing world who don't have the least idea about what Electricity is. We can make all these dreams, we associate with Alien Solar true only if all of us are ready to be lead into the realms of truth,logic and knowledge from the dungeons of lies and deceptions which alienate us from any possibility of a sunny future. I am not arguing in favour of making this joourney because I am associated with Solar Power development but because this is the truly honest logical argument which made me go into Solar power to begin with. Thus

Asato maa Sadgamaya or Lead us from untruth to truth

and if I may add help us build a better future for everyone !

AlienSolar = Solar Power + Alien

Ha ha just kidding guys. But seriously have you thought why out of all the names we could have come up with we decided on Alien Solar? One of the guesses you are venturing is right but only partially. Yes our endeavour relies on technological expertise and scientific brilliance, and as there is a notion among the general public to associate “Alien technology” as the zenith of excellence we named ourselves Alien Solar, to indicate how high our aspirations really are in terms of what we want to achieve in the arena of Green energy. But as I said before we have a deeper more subtle reason. Let me start by asking what the word Alien really means? It means something which is not familiar to you something which is foreign to you. It doesn't have to be E.T flying away in a spaceship. In the history of humanity what people have been really hostile to or afraid of are IDEAS which were alien to them. Anything which goes against the norm of the times are severely dealt with and has to face a host of oppositions. If you followed my previous instalment of this article you will remember the scientist I told you about, who in spite of his intelligence and wisdom didn't recognise clean energy as the only possible way to a better future. Now when all of Europe are taking ground breaking steps to ensure that solar power flourishes I wonder if the concept still feels alien to him. But what is really alarming is that if a member of the intelligentsia harbours such notions then what would be the reaction of the ordinary citizenry. The degree of alienation that exists amongst us regarding solar power and its potential is very disturbing indeed. No one will even consider that something is a better solution to a problem if he isn't aware of the problem to begin with and what the other “solutions” are. Thus our name bears testimony not only to our aspirations but also to our humble acceptance of the fact that Green energy is still an alien concept to the majority of the developing world. And if we are to emerge successful in our goal it is you who will have to help us dismiss the second interpretation of our name. So what is our goal? Solar power? A few installations in townships and villages? . . . . Well to name a few. But the general more holistic definition of our goals is

Tamaso maa Jyotirgamaya

which indicates a journey from darkness to light. It is not of consequence to us how many installations of a solar panel we are able to provide each month as it depends more on how many people appreciate the value of encouraging solar power and less on our work force. But what is of consequence to us is how many people we are able to bring into our sphere of ideology of building a better future. We want to do nothing more than lighting a bulb even if it is just one single bulb that we light because we are certain that for every bulb we light YOU will light at least one more and ultimately all that will be left is light. At the present juncture of our civilization it is more important to recognise that what we choose as our path today will either open up into a broad avenue or pitfall of tomorrow. We will not live forever but our kith and kin will and it is necessary to ensure that we didn't lead them into darkness. The world, if, it has to survive and with all its glory, has to be endowed with the legacy of light. When I started by saying

Mrtyor maa Amrtamgamaya

I began with the plea not to any supernatural omnipresence but to YOU, my readers, to lead us from death towards immortality. We are survived by our successors and we are the only ones who have the duty of giving them a clean beautiful Earth. People who have been to space can never stop speaking about its beauty and Alien Solar although a very small venture at present will do everything in its power to ensure that it stays that way. Yes there are many challenges for solar power to establish itself as a credible source of alternative clean energy but trust me when I say it is worth facing those challenges. This is not when you procrastinate while the future of tomorrow passes you by as the bleak present of today. This is when YOU take it upon yourself to start lighting bulbs as we have done. Just make sure you go the right way about it.

One of the most iconic scenes in the history of Indian cinema from the movie Swades – We The People.

I know I haven't given a lot of info on solar power and what our ideas are with it. But this was my first time talking to you guys and I wanted to make sure that all of you had a brief introduction to our thoughts about present day energy crisis and what Alien Solar intends to do about it. So make sure you keep coming back because the really cool stuff is going to come up in the next articles. In conclusion I will sign off today with the following quote by Susannah Locke.

The sun--that power plant in the sky--bathes Earth in ample energy to fulfill all the world's power needs many times over. It doesn't give off carbon dioxide emissions. It won't run out. And it's free.

--- Susannah Locke, Scientific American, October 20, 2008


Partha Pratim Basumallick

Research Student, RRI, Bangalore

He did his M. Sc in Physics from IITM, Chennai and presently pursuing research at Raman Research Institute, Bangalore.

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