Smart Villages Podcast 2 – The future of energy storage for smart villages – Interview with Dr Vasant Kumar

Friday August 5th, 2016 - Smart Villages

In Smart Villages Podcast 2, host Sir Brian Heap interviews Dr Vasant Kumar, Head of Materials Chemistry Group in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. Dr Kumar explains that his group research interests relate to materials innovation for “Energy, Environment and Sustainability”, working to help develop technologies for new types of batteries, fuel cells, environmental / health sensors, as well as harnessing solar energy for water cleaning and pollution treatment. They discuss advances in energy storage, including Tesla’s much-publicised advances, and assess whether these technologies will have an impact on rural areas of developing countries in future.

Please find below the complete transcript for Smart Villages Podcast 2.

Transcript

Molly Hurley-Dépret…Welcome to Smart Villages Podcast number two.

Welcome to the Smart Villages podcast, where we discuss cutting edge technology, policy, and entrepreneurship for off-grid villages in developing countries.

My name is Molly Hurley-Dépret, and I am the Storyteller and Policy Manager for the Smart Villages Initiative which is based in Cambridge and Oxford, UK.

You can find out more about the initiatve at our website – www.e4sv.org. The project is about energy as a catalyst for development for the bottom billion people who live off the grid.

Today we’re joined by Sir Brian Heap, Senior Advisor to the Smart Villages Initiative, and Dr. Vasant Kumar, Head of Materials Chemistry Group in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge.

Brian Heap… Hello, Dr Kumar, we are very glad to welcome you to the Smart Villages podcast series and thank you very much for helping us to understand further the challenges of energy storage. 

First, could you tell us about your position in Cambridge and summarise some of your research interests. 

Vasant Kumar…. I am a Senior Academic in the Department of Materials Science, heading the Materials Chemistry Group with about 25 members consisting of PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and technical staff.  Our group research interests relate to materials innovation for “Energy, Environment and Sustainability”, working to help develop technologies for new types of batteries, fuel cells, environmental / health sensors, as well as harnessing solar energy for water cleaning and pollution treatment. We take a holistic approach, for example if you consider energy storage using batteries, we focus not only in developing improved and affordable batteries but also look at the resources required to manufacture them and then after use, the most suitable option to recover and re-use these in making new batteries, such that the overall carbon, energy and resource footprints are minimised.

BH… I enjoyed reading about some of your work in the book of essays we published last year called Smart Villages: New thinking for off-grid communities worldwide. As you know Prime Minister Modi is pushing the idea of Smart Villages very strongly in the rural communities of India. There are some major initiatives in India on solar and wind for producing renewable energy but why is energy storage so important in villages?

VK…… Removal of rural underdevelopment is greatly enhanced by availability of decent lighting, pumping, refrigeration, communication tools and better educational facilities, all dependent upon electricity. Off-grid renewable electricity is already favourably competing with fossil fuel power and mains grid is not a viable option for rapidly rising rural demand. India is already on an exponential trajectory in solar electricity from the current 5000 MW projected to grow to 97,000 MW capacity by 2022! Due to the intermittent nature of renewable energy, power is fed into a bank of batteries to be stored for use when required.

Our contribution to that task is ensuring that clean, renewable and efficient power options are in the forefront. In addition to being techno-economically viable, any political support to make these institutionally feasible, socially acceptable and environmentally sound can make the crucial difference.

BH….. Which are the main centres in India that are doing important research on energy storage and recycling? Are you working with them to help make progress or are there other groups involved?

VK…..The envisaged scale is so large that the situation is attracting numerous actors from researchers, technology centres, entrepreneurs, ethical investors, industries, NGOs, politicians, think-tanks, governments and international agencies, civil society groups and many more. I am working with a number of sectors to add our small contributions, whether it is in the area of nucleating new battery or fuel cell technologies, addressing resource, energy and carbon footprints in the rapidly growing environmental sector, assessing pollution maps by air quality monitoring & control or in educational collaborations related to the above areas.

BH…..In your essay in the book on Smart Villages which I referred to earlier you wrote about developing countries leapfrogging towards sustainable energy. I wonder what you think have been the major advances in energy storage since you wrote that essay?

VK….Renewable energy (such as solar or biomass) costs are decreasing @ 15% for each doubling of capacity. Energy storage costs are decreasing at a lower rate, but are moving in the right direction. For example solar electricity can be produced at $0.1 – 0.2 per kWH, a decrease by a factor of nearly 3 in just 5 years, while energy storage costs, also in the same price range currently, have only decreased by 25% or so in the same period.

BH….What is the reason that these costs are coming down? Is it the case that advances in a glamorous field like Tesla electric cars has had an effect on fields which are not quite so eye-catching?  

VK……Combination of factors are in play, increase of supply for example of semiconductors required to make solar cells, improvement in mass production technologies, relocation of plants in lower cost centres, competition – the usual techno-economic factors. The global rural sector offers an opportunity for a $1 trillion electricity market alone in the next decade which in my view is generating a lot of actions. Thus electricity may cease to be a rural luxury in the near future.

Tesla electric cars and the publicised aim for reduction in battery costs represents this trend towards converting a luxury products into a mass product.

In this discussion, we are concerned with actions that will facilitate energy storage opportunities in Smart Villages so that this enabling segment in off-grid electrification is not a major limiting factor.

BH….thank you very much Dr Kumar for a most interesting session and best wishes with your research in this crucially important topic.

VK….. Thank you for the kind invitation. It has been a pleasure to talk to you both.

MHD….Thanks for joining us here today for Smart Villages Podcast number two.

For those of you who want to follow up this podcast please go to our website at E4SV.org where you will find more details of the book of essays we published on Smart Villages.

On e4sv.org, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter about the latest developments for off-grid energy worldwide. You can also follow us on Twitter – we’re @e4smartvillages.

Thanks again for tuning in, and we’ll look forward to welcoming you to our next podcast.