The silver lining

If we add the amount of solar energy that is absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, land and oceans every year, we end up with approximately 3,850,000 EJ (exajoules or 10^18 joules). To put it in more understandable terms, this amount of energy is equivalent to:  2.7 million earthquakes of the same size as the Tohoku earthquake in Japan (2011); 40,000 times the total energy consumption in the United States; 8,000 times the total consumption in the whole world; 40 per cent of the energy that is required to heat the entire volume of water we have on earth by 1°Celsius. Every square metre of our planet receives around 1,366 watts of direct solar radiation.

In America, one solar panel system is installed every four minutes. NASA is currently working on a solar-powered aircraft.

Globally, California is home to the largest solar power plant in the world, located in the Mojave Desert. It spans 1,000 acres. California also dominates the solar power market, with a market share of 44 per cent in 2015. California, Arizona, and North Carolina are the top three US states for solar power, based on the amount of cumulative solar electric capacity installed. There are now nine states in the US where 100 per cent of new electrical energy comes from solar power.

In terms of employment generation, more than 200,000 Americans currently work in the solar power industry. That number is expected to climb to 420,000 by 2020.

India is currently 100 per cent importer of solar parts where silver is used. The major countries from where it is being imported are China and Japan. Taking forward the vision of our prime minister Narendra Modi to produce 100 GW of solar energy by 2022, and producing solar parts, India’s consumption of silver will be all set to increase by about 4,000 tonnes. It is also true that 40 tonnes of silver is required to produce panels that would generate 1GW of solar power.

Technically speaking, silver is a primary ingredient in photovoltaic cells, and 90 per cent of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells use silver paste. When sunlight hits the silicon cell it generates electrons. The silver used in the cell works as a conductor to collect these electrons in order to form a useful electric current. The silver then transports the electricity out of the cell so that it can be used. Further, the conductive nature of silver enhances the reflection of the sunlight to improve the energy that is collected. Therefore, if it wasn’t for silver, solar wouldn’t be as efficient in turning sunlight into energy.

But, where is the silver in India. Have we explored silver in India? Silver is giving jitters to the increasing solar demand in India. Silver is found in zinc-lead mines and there has been no new large mine explored in India in over a decade. Exploring a mine takes its own time and developing a mine takes 3-5 years. Either we rely on imports or we develop our own resources is the decision that India needs to take.

India is the largest consumer and importer of silver in the world, having a share of about 21 per cent of global silver demand though it produces only 6-8 per cent of its consumption requirement. The current silver import in India is touching 7,000 tonnes and here in India we produce close to 500 tonnes which maximum can be extended to 1,000 tonnes in coming 3-5 years, with expansion of Hindustan Zinc mines that produces over 95 per cent of India’s silver.

Globally, the highest usage of silver is industrial fabrication (55 per cent), followed by coins and bars (20 per cent) and jewellery (20 per cent) and lastly silverware (5 per cent). In India, the highest usage of silver is jewellery (38 per cent), followed by coins and bars (22 per cent) and lastly silverware (20 per cent) and industrial fabrication (20 per cent), as per World Silver Institute.

As compared to the world, India has been slow towards utilisation of silver for industrial usage with mere 20 per cent, as compared to global usage. Though we are growing in terms of utilisation of silver in jewellery and silver-ware, the real boost will come with digital India and development of domestic solar energy market where silver will be used.

Silver’s industrial role is much more than that of gold’s and it is for this reason that a shortage of silver will have higher negative implications than there would be if there was a shortage of gold.

Silver will always continue to be in demand essentially because of its industrial usage.  Satellites, lasers, high tech weaponry, robotics, telecommunications need silver. Conductors, contracts, switches and fuses require silver because it does not corrode much or cause overheating and fires.

It is also true that one industry gives rise to another industry and there is chain reaction, resulting is not just value addition but also employment generation.

With the entire spotlight usually given to gold, silver gets side-lined and is considered as gold’s poorer cousin. Gold is considered to be more valuable primarily because it exists in rarer quantities when compared to silver. While majority of the gold goes into hoarding — as jewellery, only a fraction of it is used in industrial production. For once you can say, silver shines more than gold.
(The writer is CEO of Hindustan Zinc)