14 December 2017 14:57:11 IST

The era of steam merchants

Generating steam used in industry from solar processes can cut costs and make for a greener planet

The era of steam merchants has begun. People are beginning to sell steam.

Companies that produce textiles, medicines, milk and dairy products, chemicals and what have you, need steam for their processes. And what do they buy for that purpose? Boilers, which convert water into steam. They spend a lot of money to buy boilers and maintain them, when all they need is steam.

So Thermax, a company that produces boilers, has started telling industries, such as textiles, pharma and food processing, ‘Don’t worry, we will take care of the boilers. Just buy the steam from us’.

Cool, right? But here’s something cooler.

A steaming opportunity

A UK-based company called GSH has opened its India office, in Chennai, and is going to these process industries, telling them it will invest its own money in improving the working of the boilers, run the boilers and sell them the steam by the kilogram!

But there is something cooler still.

Instead of using boilers, why not make steam using solar energy? Boilers are fired using coal or wood, and this, in turn, gives out carbon dioxide — our enemy number one. Solar, on the other hand, is a great friend.

To check this out, I went to the outskirts of Salem, a small town in western Tamil Nadu, where Hatsun Agro makes ‘Arun Ice Creams’. Hatsun, which also produces milk, milk powder, cheese and curd, has gone wild using renewable energy. It has solar collectors on the roof to produce hot water, solar panels to produce electricity, heat pumps to generate heat and even a unique heat producer called ‘stratification tank’, which I will describe in another article. Today, 92 per cent of Hatsun’s electricity needs, and a third of all its energy requirements, come from renewable sources. It wants to go 100 per cent green.

Cream n’ steam

But I digress. In Salem, next to the Hatsun ice-cream factory, a German company called Protarget has put up a parabolic mirror system, that reflects sunlight on to a tube containing a fluid. As the day progresses, the fluid becomes very hot. The heat is then tapped and used to produce steam. This steam is piped to the ice-cream factory next door, to pasteurise milk. Hatsun pays Protarget per kg of steam.

We can extend this concept to other areas and you will see exciting possibilities extending all the way to the horizon.

Today, our thermal power plants burn coal to produce heat energy, which is used to convert water into very high temperature steam in boilers. The steam runs through turbines and produces electricity. You can save a lot of coal if you first make steam using solar equipment and then heat the steam further in the boilers.

Chips and costs

This thinking is not new. The marriage of solar and coal-fired thermal plants has been on the cards for some time. Some years back, there was talk of such an arrangement for an NTPC-owned gas-based power project in Gujarat, where a third party would only sell steam. But it fizzled out, presumably because of the cost.

Costs will come down when more and more people put up the projects. But it needs pioneers to not mind the higher costs initially and pursue the projects regardless. Hatsun is not saving money by buying steam from Protarget. Instead of producing it in its own boilers, by buying steam at ₹1.3 a kg, the company is paying 20 paise more per kg.

If the government chips in with a small subsidy to cover the higher costs or to sweeten it a bit, then the Hatsun-Protarget project will be a shining example for thousands of other companies to follow. Over time, solar-produced steam will get into large, coal-fired power projects too. The environmental benefits will be significant — it will help guarantee the survival of this planet.