In 2001, VIT University, Vellore’s core governing committee backed by none less than the Chancellor Dr G Viswanathan committed to energy self-sufficiency. “We aim at 100 per cent energy self-sufficiency” says G V Selvam, Vice President, VIT University (VIT), Vellore, the driving force behind its energy initiatives. What inspires Selvam is the strong sunshine that graces most parts of India for the better part of the year. Notwithstanding the large upfront investment needed to tap solar energy, the returns from the installation after the payback period are substantial. Selvam knows this from VIT University’s early experiences in tapping solar energy, which he is building on. Also, he is driving research in solar energy by both faculty and students, to improve upon and expand the applications of solar energy on the campus.
Developing skills for harnessing solar energy
Solar energy technology is still new to India, especially large scale projects. So, institutions embarking on this path must rope in experts who can guide them in selecting and implementing appropriate technologies. At the outset, VIT University contracted Karnataka Energy Management System, Bengaluru (KEMS) to execute its solar projects. Professor R Natarajan, now General Manager of VIT’s CO2 research and Green Technologies Centre, then working with the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council, an autonomous organisation set up in 1988 under the Department of Science and Technology, was appointed as project consultant.
Getting experienced consultants on board can also help institutions navigate through complex and ever-changing government policies and subsidies for solar projects. As an example, in 2001, VIT wanted to install a 100 KW solar power plant costing rupees four crores under the Financial Intermediary (FI) route. A change in policy saw the government withdraw the FI scheme under which VIT had applied for funding, compelling the institution to scale down its plans to a install a plant of 8.25 KW capacity only costing about rupees forty lakh—“a sum we could hardly afford,” recollects Selvam.
As importantly, institutions must build the skills of their faculty to take their solar aims forward, especially if solar research is a priority. According to Selvam, “If the institution aims at solar research, like VIT University, it helps to develop new technical skills in its faculty. Doing so gives faculty the confidence to take on leadership roles.”
In 2001, VIT deputed associate professor Dr V Ramesh from the electrical engineering department to Schlaich Bergermann & Partner’s facility in Spain to study the dish Stirling concept. Because of this exposure, Dr Ramesh played a key role during the installation of VIT’s dish Stirling engine and in monitoring its operations.
Plugging into the sun
VIT was thinking in terms of solar energy research from the beginning. It installed a 10 kW solar dish Stirling engine for R&D purposes in 2001. To promote the concept in India, Schlaich Bergermann & Partner provided the engine free of cost, through KEMS, Bengaluru its India representative. KEMS and Aurovil, Pondicherry, executed the project.
PHASE II: In 2003, another faculty member Dr R Sundaresan, professor in the School of Mechanical and Building Sciences, was sent to Gelsenkirchen University of Applied Science, Germany, as part of an agreement between the two institutes. Dr Sundaresan studied solar cooling methods and the cogeneration concept involving the simultaneous generation of electricity and air conditioning through solar energy.
That same year, VIT commissioned an 8.25 KW solar plant costing around Rs 40 lakhs, replete with battery bank and inverter. This plant is meeting part of the power requirement of the institution’s Energy Centre. The power generated through solar photo voltaic units is stored in batteries and used for street lighting at night.
As a corollary of this project and to make the most of the stored energy, VIT piloted the use of low-energy consuming 12 watt LED lights in place of 40 watt tubes lights, mercury and sodium vapour lamps, for street lighting in the Vellore campus. LED lights replaced mercury street lights at junction points on an experimental basis. Then, a 90 watt LED bulb/pulp cost around Rs 15000 vis-à-vis the current Rs 5000 per piece. It took VIT 3 to 4 years to recover this investment. Based on that success, the institute has since replaced the remaining street lights and tubes in all the hostels with 12 watt LED lights. Doing so has helped cut the power consumed by tubes by over 75%.
Also in 2003, it commissioned a gridinteractive bio-mass power plant, producing approximately 1500 units per day. This output is channelled to student’s hostels through the internal grid. A government grant helped meet part of the expenses of this project, which meets 1 to 1.2% of the university’s energy requirement.
PHASE III: In 2010, VIT completed the installation of indirect solar water heaters with a capacity of 20000 litres per day in its Chennai campus. The following year it installed a similar 10000 litres per day system in its Vellore campus. Indirect systems help avoid failures due to salt deposition. By then, VIT had started to think in earnest about methods to bring down the cost of solar energy devices. Its in-house CO2 Research and Green Technologies Centre fabricated indigenous solar photovoltaic street lights for its Vellore campus.
Costing only Rs 80000 per device, each of these comprises four LED lights, a battery bank and inverter. Four such street lights were installed as an experiment. Keen to save electricity through solar powered street lighting in its Chennai campus as well, VIT installed 56 China-made LED street lights there over 2010 and 2011, at a cost of Rs 1.56 lakh per piece. Powered by solar photovoltaic panel, aero generator (wind mill) and the grid, these can store energy in their battery bank.
In 2012, VIT commissioned an advanced solar energy cooking system which can generate temperatures up to 300 degrees Centigrade, and which can be used for frying as well as regular cooking.
ONGOING PHASE IV: VIT’s latest initiative is a 2 MW solar photovoltaic grid interactive project, which doesn’t need a separate storage facility. Ventus, a company specialising in solar energy, is setting up this plant on 7.5 acres of land provided by VIT. Other ongoing projects include the installation of a biomass pyrolysis unit to produce bio-oil from agro waste, solar tri-generation system and solar photovoltaic-based pumps for pumping water from borewells. Also, VIT’s CO2 Research and Green Technologies Centre is developing a solar photovoltaic panel tree for VIT, capable of producing 16 kW per tree through 16 branches at different levels. This will cut down the land required to produce solar energy by 50%, from 5 acres per MW to 2.5 acres per MW.
Ahead in the race to tap solar energy
When VIT’s latest 2 MW plant is commissioned in 2014, the institution will meet more than 12% of its 3.8 MW (per hour) energy needs from renewable sources. VIT will well exceed the Tamil Nadu state government’s directive mandating educational institutions to meet 6% of their power usage from renewable energy. Incidentally, before passing this directive, Tamil Nadu state government officials paid visits to VIT to study and learn from its achievements in harnessing solar energy.
VIT’s experience allows it to offer to students courses in renewable energy. Its bachelors in technology course in the mechanical engineering stream, offers students the option to specialise in Energy Engineering. It also offers a masters course in technology on Energy & Environmental Engineering.
Students are also working with faculty on solar projects, such as the creation of solarpowered mobile device charging poles for the use of 21000 students in the Vellore campus and another 4000 in the Chennai campus. Other ongoing research aims at improving the efficiency of solar panel powered battery cars used for intra-campus faculty transfers. VIT is truly racing to tap solar energy.