Virginia Tech to help India harness solar, wind energy

New York: A new Virginia Tech research centre will open later this year in Tamil Nadu and will rally a team of engineers to refine and adapt windmills and solar panels to whip up electricity for households in rural India.

The research center is a joint effort between Virginia Tech and private-sector partner MARG Swarnabhoomi which has committed $1.8 million for the 6,000-square-foot lab. Virginia Tech is underwriting staff and operations with an initial disbursement of $350,000.

In 2006, Virginia Tech President Charles W Steger visited India and took a shine to the idea of planting a Virginia Tech campus flag in the country. The research centre is Steger's brainchild but the project is driven mostly by a clutch of brilliant Indian professors at Virginia Tech and its Indian alumni.

"The goal is to improve life for 400 million Indians not connected to the grid," said Guru Ghosh, vice president for international affairs, at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg in Virginia.

 Virginia Tech to help India harness solar, wind energy

Shashank Priya developed these piezoelectric windmills to power a bridge monitoring sensor network. Image credit: Virginia Tech

"There are still some refinements to be made on this amazing technology developed at Virginia Tech. We're aiming for the point where the solar panels and small windmills can be mass produced, tested in India's rural communities, and then be deployed to create low-cost, renewable energy worldwide," added Ghosh.

The windmills, which currently cost less than $1,000 to produce, use a unique blade developed at Virginia Tech that achieves greater than normal aerodynamic performance. The solar panels involve a paint process that might one day be easily mass produced in a factory.

It will be cost-effective in the long-run for an energy-starved country like India to harness the power of the sun especially in villages where it is difficult for power suppliers to recover transmission costs from users.

Large solar power plants that directly feed the grid, like the over 600 MW Charanka solar park launched recently with great fanfare in Gujarat, have been gaining traction. But potential growth in off-grid solar power offers a ray of hope to 40 percent of India's 1.2 billion population that lacks access to electricity.

Image credit: Virginia Tech.

"Instead of copying western countries Indian villages which don't have electricity and lack power infrastructure can simply leapfrog technology by adopting solar power strongly," said Jigar Shah, the founder and chief of SunEdison LLC, a Baltimore company that installs solar projects and has been in the news in the US for creating a new business model.

SunEdison, which sells solar power services worldwide, has over 50 MW of interconnected solar electricity in India, with projects ranging from small rooftop installations to part of the Gujarat solar park.

"In some cases solar can even work out to be cheaper. For instance, it is 50 percent cheaper to give solar connections to remote villages in India, Bangladesh and Nepal than spend billions on expanding the grid," said Shah who never misses an opportunity to spread the gospel of solar power.

The Virginia Tech research centre is planning to start recruiting graduate students in India to work on the project immediately, while its 6,000-square-foot lab space is being fully outfitted.

"India, with its big energy needs, can immediately begin to use these technologies and tell us how they work, what improvements need to be made, and guide us so that the windmills and solar panels are suitable to go to the marketplace," said Shashank Priya, an associate professor at Virginia Tech's College of Engineering.

Priya, who holds at least four patents, is the founding chair of the Energy Harvesting Workshop series. He is going to spearhead much of the centre's work in India.

The new Virginia Tech research centre will be housed in MARG Swarnabhoomi's Amrita Research Park, where ocean breezes are conducive to windmill research. Windmills are being designed to work in areas of low and variable wind speed while the solar panels are being designed to work in low-light conditions when the sun plays hide-and-seek.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 13:19:38 IST