24 March 2016 13:58:35 IST

In the heart of the sea

Where’s the best place to locate energy plants? Into the sea seems to be the answer

We all want nuclear power (at least, some of us do) but none of us wants a nuclear plant in our backyard. We’re never truly able to get rid of the niggling feeling that no matter how safe the experts declare it to be, all hell will break loose if the thing goes off.

But there is a way to have nuclear power projects, and in nobody’s backyard — just put it out into the sea.

Perhaps ‘barge mounted nuclear power plants’ is an idea whose time has come. As an idea, it is not so novel — experts have toyed with the thoughts for a long time. Truly, every nuclear-powered submarine is a kind of a barge mounted power plant. The only delimiting factor is the size of the plant — as a thumb rule, smaller plants are costlier, and a barge mounted one would be even dearer.

But technologists seem to have achieved some breakthrough here, going by the example of Akademik Lomonosov, a barge-mounted, 70 MW nuclear power plant that is to be delivered in September to Russia’s Rosenergoatom.

Some reports put the cost at ₹35 crore a MW. This may sound a lot, compared with ₹6 crore a MW for coal-power plant and ₹6.5 crore for wind and solar. But then remember, the next two units of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant — units 3 and 4 — are billed at ₹40 crore a MW and they say the power would be sold at ₹3.90 a kWhr.

Plus, a ₹35 crore/ MW floating nuclear plant might make economic sense. (By the way, India has also seen barge mounted power plants. The 196 MW Taneer Bhavi diesel-fired power plant belonging to the GMR group ceased to function only recently, after two decades of operation.)

The way to go nuclear is to go into the sea. The advantages are obvious. It can be put far from land and there is enough water available to douse, in case something goes wrong. Of course, hard-core environmentalists will frown at the possible damage to the sea eco-system, but then, the planet’s seas and oceans are far too big for a nuclear event to have a noticeable bite.

Floating solar power plants

Now, if nuclear power plants can be pushed into the sea, why not ‘solar’? Floating solar plants are the next big thing. Just a few days ago, the city of London saw a large floating solar plant come alive on the city’s biggest drinking water reservoir, the Queen Elizabeth reservoir.

The project has 23,000 solar panels on pontoons, generating enough electricity to power 1,800 homes. (Those interested to know more might want to check out this link ). India has a few floating solar plants, though none of this size. But experts say it is not such a big deal to have a sea-based solar plant. Again, there are obvious advantages — no shading ever, more sunlight to capture, no limitation of land availability, and intersperse-ability with wind.

Talking of wind, there is some interesting news on that front too. A very recent report of UK’s Offshore Wind Programme Board, titled Cost Reduction Monitoring Framework report, has projected that the cost of offshore wind turbines will fall through 2020, to a price whose equivalent to ₹10 a kWhr.

Now, with India’s proven prowess in frugal engineering and our desi jugaad , it is conceivable that the price of offshore wind would be, say, ₹8 a kWhr. While it is still costly, remember that this is only the beginning. Prices will come down with scale and experience, and hybridization with solar.

All these illustrate that perhaps the best place to locate energy plants is out into the sea. You could envision in medium-term future, a series of power islands hosting multiple plants with common evacuation facilities, producing power as green as it can get.