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An Interview with Prof. Chetan Singh Solanki

May 16, 2023

The institute invited Prof Chetan Singh Solanki, Founder of Energy Swaraj Foundation, Brand Ambassador of Solar Energy, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh on 9th May, 2023 to deliver a lecture on 6 Point Understanding of Climate Change and Corrective Actions After the lecture, Watch Out! got a chance to interview Mr. Solanki.

Watch Out: Sir, thank you for the lecture, it was very enlightening. What were your influences in life, in terms of, you were a professor in energy engineering over at IIT Bombay so what led you to become a professor over there?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: Well, I mean I come from a small village in MP ,even today there are no buses which go to my village and when I was studying it was having primary school, that too only one classroom, so within one classroom, five classes used to sit, only one teacher will teach all the five classes. My father sent me to Indore and then Mumbai for studying so I consider myself the lucky one. And I always wanted to do something for my village but I did my MTech in microelectronics and got a good job in Texas instruments. Somehow, I was not happy because, microelectronics in 1999, when it is going to be useful for villages? So that is where I thought and with the help of my guide, we decided to do research in solar energy and I left my job and ended up in Europe to do my PhD. The whole idea was to come back to India and promote the technology in India for society and when I decided to come back to India, IIT was of course the best choice and that’s why, that’s how I ended up in IIT Bombay.

Watch Out: How did you choose the field of energy?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: The field I had chosen was solar energy. Because in 1999, till 2013-14, the electricity situation in rural areas was very bad and solar energy was a solution. And that’s why I chose to work in solar energy. That’s why I ended up in energy. Energy is the most important driving force of our life, social parameters of growth, economic parameters of growth are all energy dependent and solar energy being abundant, clean could provide a quick solution to societies and that’s why I ended up in the energy field or solar energy particularly.”

Watch Out: But solar energy, as far as I’ve felt, has been something that has been costly for a lot of years

Prof. Chetan Solanki: That’s a misconception that it’s costly.I keep asking as a counter question, tell me what is cheap? Not a single person could tell, they would blabber something here and there, so nobody knows what is cheap but everybody knows what is costly. So, what is costly, I keep saying, that people buy cars, worth 5 lakh or 10 lakh rupees, is that not costly? It is, but people buy it. People buy gold, 50,000 rupees or 60,000 rupees for 10 grams. Such a small tiny amount but do people buy gold? Yes. So, we make a decision of buying or not buying based on our priorities and today in the context of the climate change, you cannot make the decision to use solar or not solar based on how cheap or expensive it is, it should be made based on what is the need of the hour and the need of the hour is to reduce carbon emission and switch to solar. Coal electricity, the government of India has been funding it for the last hundred years. How does the railway come in? Without railways supplying coal, power plants are not possible. So look at the investment. So, it is because of the hundred years of investment, because of the subsidies on all kinds of things, that is how we get electricity. And on top of it, we do not pay for the cleaning of the environment. So, this comparison, this solar is costly, and coal is not, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. It’s not the correct comparison anyway and it is neither a question of cost anymore because it is a question of survivability on the planet. That is the bigger question today.

Watch Out: For a lot of people, their journey would probably end at IIT Bombay where you’re teaching about solar energy, you’re researching about solar energy, you’re building solutions for solar energy, so what inspired you to start this yatra in 2020?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: Well, in 2019, I travelled across the world. I felt that all over the world, the governments are behaving in a similar manner. The rich government, the poor government. Developing countries, developed countries, in all, everybody is in for economic growth at the cost of everything and anything. So, nature is degrading, water is degrading, soil is degrading, climate is changing but even today everybody focuses on GDP growth. So, I felt that it is beyond any government to solve the problem because they are elected for a short time, four years and five years and they do not have enough resources. So, it is a duty of every individual to do something for climate correction because every individual contributes to climate change. Every individual cooks food on LPG that results in carbon emission. Every individual wears clothes that takes energy and results in carbon emission, so every individual is contributing. It is not because of the government that the climate has changed it is because of the consumers, climate has changed and therefore every consumer must be part of the solution. And because time is running out, I believe there has to be some kind of a public movement, public awareness where you feel responsible for your own body. Each individual is responsible for breathing clean air, isn’t it? And drinking clean water and eating clean food. So at least do something for your own body, forget about society and forget about the country. So, people have to understand that you have responsibility for your own body, your own children and they should be able to live without any problems and that’s why everybody needs to work hard to solve the problem of climate change. And how do we bring public awareness? Gandhi ji would have created some sort of a yatra or movement or so that is how I decided to do this yatra.

Watch Out: Alright Sir, coming to the AMG formula that you gave, can you elaborate on that formula?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: So AMG is Avoid, Minimise and Generate. And most people, 99%, when they seek a solution, they believe that more technological development, more scientific development, more economic growth will solve the problem. I think that is fundamentally not correct. Because more development will result in more consumption and we know that the size of the planet and all its resources are fixed and finite. No science can actually increase the size of the planet, no science can increase the soil on the planet. So from this context, we have to limit our consumption, and one of the best way to do it is, don’t consume it. Align your life in a manner that you live in limited resources, which used to be part of life in India anyway, go back, 30 years back, this is how we used to live. This is how in family everything was shared and how the cloth was worn and torn and reused till it really went bad. So India had that kind of life where we respected everything, even the non living thing, so avoiding use of material and energy were important, which I think 99% of people do not understand. Avoiding is the zero cost option, it doesn’t take you money to avoid anything. Minimising things takes little money, you need to convert your appliances to more efficient appliances. Once you avoid and minimise, your needs will be so little that you can easily align yourself with nature and generate locally, generate your food locally, your energy locally, and wear local clothes. I think that will create a great bond and it will also result in great economic growth, job creation, independence from other countries on energy import, climate change mitigation, CO2 reduction, women empowerment. I think there are many many benefits of following this AMG-avoid minimise generate.

Watch Out: So Sir, you’ve talked a lot about solar energy as an alternative. I’ve read that solar energy is not viable because a lot of the materials that go into the making of solar energy such as silicon and everything is something that is sourced from other countries, so rather than moving from energy sourcing from other countries, we’re moving to use materials from other countries. So what is your opinion on that? What changed?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: So is coal electricity viable? The question is that we compare wrong things. Silicon is abundantly available. Silicon is abundantly available in India, it is not processed to a form in which we can use it. If that is a bottleneck, let’s make another silicon plant, if that is a bottleneck, let’s solve the problem but it does not mean that let’s use more coal right, isn’t it? It is true that whatever consumption we have of solar panels we do not produce all the silicon in the country. So that can be solved by producing silicon in the country, by making more investment in this, rather than making the same investment in coal power plants. But this is a long term problem and it has to be solved some time, so let’s do it now.

Watch Out: In terms of renewable energy, there are multiple alternatives that are talked about. I understand that you’ve said that wind energy is a form of solar energy, which is similar, but there’s also nuclear energy which is talked about. What is your opinion on that?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: See, I told two fundamental laws of human existence. And anything and everything that we do on this planet, we must follow those two laws, of limiting consumption and localising production. When it comes to localising production, can every house have a nuclear power plant? So then you’re violating that, we are going to centralise somewhere, which means that you are also going to put transmission lines, distribution lines, transformers, all kinds of things. So in my view, solar energy, when it is so abundantly available, when it shines in everybody’s house, why don’t I generate it at my own place and use it. Of course I mean, in some cases, let’s say if you want to run a heavy industry, let’s say a steel plant, it makes sense to put a coal power plant and derive energy from nuclear power plants. So in some places, when centralised operation is suitable, do it. But in most operations, centralised operation is not required. So if you cannot decentralise the production, then the technology is not useful according to me.

Watch Out: Sir what do you think is the major resistance in the people when it comes to actually adopting this?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: I think it is a lack of understanding, as I said, even most educated people do not understand the situation. How bad it is and how big trouble we are in already. This year’s event actually clearly identifies how big trouble it is, the way in the month of may it is raining and it is cold, and it should be the summer time, which is not happening. All these fluctuations in weather will have its impact on our lives eventually, it will have an impact on food production. It will have an impact on health, it will have an impact on a lot of other things. That’s a very bad situation, but how many people understand? How many people are panicking about it? How many people are running around because of it? Very few. So it’s a lack of awareness. Gandhi, in his book has very beautifully said, according to the book somebody asked him, why do people do bad things? He said because people are not aware of the impact of those bad things and he coated an example of cobra (Snake). If a cobra bites you you’re going to die, that’s a 100 percent sure fact right. If a cobra comes you’re not going to see, let me try if this is going to bite or not right, you’re not going to take the cobra in your lap and say how beautiful the cobra is. Because from the depth of your heart you understand it is like this.

How many people understand from the depth of their heart that it is now a question of the survivability of human life? 80 years from now, 100 years from now. The manner, the pace at which things are changing is very very alarming. And because people do not understand. People are not acting because everybody else is telling them to consume more and produce more, every advertisement tells you that. We made the norms of society that anybody who consumes more is a better person, we elevate them we look up to that person, as i said we have to actually look down to that person, he’s not a good person he’s consuming more means, because he’s consuming more there is a more carbon emission which will have global warming and you’re going to get affected, isn’t it? That connection is definitely there. So why are you happy and elevating him? Don’t do that.

Watch Out: So we’ve talked about a lot of points and I understand that even we can implement them, but as students over in IIT Roorkee we believe that one thing we can do is to put up our voices to implement more solar energy. What else do you feel we as students can particularly do?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: See first of all i keep saying that all those people who are of my age 50s and 60s, they are not going to do much, because they know that they will not be on this planet when 2030 is down the line but those who are of your age you students are going to be here on the planet for another 60 years and 70 years. isn’t it? You are the one who is going to suffer more, so there are 2 things you can do. 1- All students first understand the context and start behaving accordingly , so you start practising first and then pose a question to your parents. How come I can’t swim in a river that you could swim in. How come there is no guarantee that the food I am eating is without chemicals, we never hear our parents are responsible for that. So first of all you correct yourself and start posing the question to your parents and your professors how come it is like this. Why there are so many air conditioners for example in IIT Roorkee campus, should be a normal question. We are near Haridwar. It should be one of the most beautiful, cooler places. How come there are so many ACs? So behave and then pose a question, hold others responsible because they will go away from this planet in 20- 30 years but you are going to suffer because of their actions today, so make them accountable.

Watch Out: A lot of us in some years are going to be in government or some corporations or something. What do you think governments and corporations can implement into this world?

Prof. Chetan Solanki: As I said, the fundamental problem is that we’ve designed our life around economic growth only. But life is not only economic growth. To live, you need happiness, you need health, you need good company, you need nature, you need air, you need water , you need all those things, you need philosophy, so life is a balance of all these things and that balance is missing . So when the government or any central government says we are growing 6.5% and next year the projected growth is 7%, let’s not be happy about that,we get that that that itself is a problem according to me. So how to strike a balance, according to me, life is like a chair, which has four legs, and if only one leg is longer, what happens to the chair.

Watch Out: It is unbalanced.

Prof. Chetan Solanki: It is it will fall down, similarly then to live a healthy and happy life you need many dimensions, you need economic growth no doubt about it, you need academic growth no doubt about it, but you also need moral growth, you also need spiritual growth and when you put all this together then your life will be booming and blossoming, it would be really like a flower where everyday you can enjoy and celebrate. That is what life is all about, life is all about celebration, enjoying every bit of it. But as science is growing, technology is growing, depression is also growing, the suicide rates are also growing, look at how many IITs every year 1 case, why? Because we are losing on other dimensions, so wherever you go or the younger generation goes I think they should bring this to sense to people. Whether it is a government organisation or a private organisation, balance up everything and then let’s grow everything and then life will become more beautiful, then we’ll be able to enjoy because ultimately as I said, Geeta says every action has only one purpose”To be happy”. If every action is not aiding you happiness you are not doing something correctly. So that is how it should be.

Watch Out: Sir, Thanks a lot for giving your time.

Prof. Chetan Solanki: Thank you