“In India, the Vedas considered the Sun as the spirit of the world thousands of years ago… (and as) the nutrition needed to sustain life. Today, when we are looking for a way to tackle the challenge of Climate Change, then we have to look at the balanced and holistic view of India’s ancient philosophy,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the International Solar Alliance (ISA) hosted recently by New Delhi.
A while ago, the NDA government lauded itself for achieving 100% electrification in the country before the deadline. As a matter of fact, the government’s understanding differed from a general one. There remains regions where the electric wires have not reached yet and the inhabitants continue to rely on archaic energy sources like kerosene, diesel and wood, thereby getting exposed to their harmful impacts and also contributing to the pollution.
Yet, due to limitation of non-renewable resources, India has finally been taking advantage of its tropical placement – late and slowly though – as it embarked to switch its energy source from thermal to solar – by choice or for the lack of it. The Modi government targets to achieve renewable energy of 175 GW by 2022, including 100 GW of solar power (40 GW of rooftop solar). As per a recent update in the Parliament, government claimed of ‘comfortably’ achieving the target. Here’s a report giving credit to non-governmental organisations and individuals for the same; as well as the government when election nears.
Delhi – capital setting benchmark
While the locals of the national Capital may hate the sun during the sizzling summers, the residents of the Milan Vihar Apartments (IP Extension) won’t – ever since they switched to solar energy. The housing society was the first to get a 141 kWp rooftop solar power plant in the capital by lapping onto the Delhi government’s proposal that offered 30% subsidy on the solar plants installation from selected four authorised contractors.
The cost of the installation – about Rs 80 lakh – was borne by the contractor, Green Ripples, as the society agreed to share the profit in 60-40 ratio (society keeps the 60 per cent) till 2043. Had the society borne the cost, it could have kept the profit too. Rakesh Sharma, the RWA secretary of the society, told The Tribune that they are expecting the bills to be almost halved now, with a subsidy of Rs 4.66 on each unit and an additional bonus of Rs 2 per unit. To reduce the bills further to almost negligible, the society plans to upgrade the plant to 300 kWp, expecting an annual saving of about Rs 1.8 million (Rs 18 lakh) without spending a single penny.
The trend was copied by the Dwarka residents too, where BSES Rajdhani in collaboration with TERI and a German company installed rooftop solar plants at seven societies of a total capacity of 506kW under the ‘Solar City Initiative – Solarise Dwarka’ programme. The plant is said to be benefitting over 700 flats saving around 0.65 million (6.5 lakh) units of power and Rs 3.2 million (Rs 32 lakh) annually.
Where wires haven’t reached
As also pointed out in several media reports earlier, while main habitations of villages get electrified, several hamlets within them remain non-electrified until some innovative minds put the spotlight on few.
Mandeep, a resident of Palamu district of Jharkhand, has been working in the Palkot village – about 250 km away from his hometown, for about a year now. As part of the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS), he looks after the promotion of solar lamps among the different communities in the nearby villages, including the hamlets on the hilly terrains like Bartoli, which is deprived of electricity as well as drinking water.
While outsiders have to climb on foot for 15-20 minutes to reach Bartoli from Haphu – the nearest village with a motor road, the tribal residents effortlessly cycle through the rocky floor for all their basic needs – from selling their agricultural products and making major purchases to charging their basic feature mobile phones at cost of Rs 10 for each time. They mostly use the phones for calling purpose so that once charged, the battery remains usable for few days to a week. The migrant labourers, who travel to cities, often get ‘Chinese’ or other cheap phones that play songs and videos for their entertainment, shares Mandeep.
In July 2017, IIT-Bombay had visited and assessed the tribal hamlet with JSLPS team to provide solar products under Solar Urja Lamp (SoUL) project, says Aritra Chakrabarty, assistant project manager (research). The project then provided each household – about 20-25 of them – solar lamps of Rs 600 each at a subsidised cost of Rs 100 with a one-year warranty, adds Mandeep.
Despite hindrance of resources, the community is well-motivated to educate their children and most of the households have purchased the lamps to allow their children to study at night. Yet, the tribe that predicts the rains for the year during the Sarhul festival fails to comprehend the product warranty. While some of them get their under-warranty equipment fixed through the local campaigners of the JSLPS, others pay a cost for a temporary fix by local electricians and few have even dumped them when not working without approaching the JSLPS.
“To still find people living without electricity in the 71st year of independence is plain sad,” exclaimed Mandeep.
Up north, leaving a nine-to-five job, Paras Loomba (32), an electronics engineer, ditched his air conditioned cabin to make way to the naturally conditioned Himalayan region and ended up earning his living out of transforming others’ lives. Inspired by his own ‘leadership’ expedition at the Antarctica a year ago, Loomba started Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), a for-profit enterprise that promotes ‘impact’ tourism in the land of high passes in 2013, with a local cook of Ladakh. “The idea was to have a self-sustainable model and to create micro enterprises for the villages that will be self sustainable,” says Loomba.
By 2016, they were joined by two more engineers and previous participants of the GHE expedition – Jaideep Bansal (30), an IIT Bombay graduate who left P&G, and Gaganpreet Singh (32), an NIT Jalandhar graduate who switched from Microsoft.
Loomba’s team looks for villages far away from government’s layout to install an electric grid. The team coordinates with the local authorities to seek permission and further coordinates with locals who can act as intermediaries – to avoid a language barrier – in convincing villagers to invest in the plan. “Forget electricity, some of these villages do not even have roads,” says Loomba. When GHE electrified Shade, a hamlet, it took them seven days to take the equipment over mules and donkeys from the nearest motorable road.
The team provides self-manufactured basic electronic goods as well as recreational items like solar-powered television etc. “All the electronics are designed and manufactured by us to keep a quality control. They have warranty of two years, under which one person from our team would visit the villages and check the equipment, say every quarter.” For maintenance thereafter, as a habit is developed among the villagers to contribute an amount in a village joint account every month, if any equipment gets faulty, the villagers can access the collected fund and get that fixed.
GHE also train the locals to assemble and repair these solar micro-grid products, who then become entrepreneurs owning service centers in the hamlets. “At Leh, the service centre is managed by three household ladies,” shares Loomba.
The project does not stop at solar electrification, but transits to a second stage to generate employment for the villagers through ‘mountain home stays’, wherein they put these undiscovered villages – hardly located in the Google Maps – on www.mountainhomestays.com to woo tourists to visit and stay at local homes run by women. While not many Indians take the risk to stay at these houses away from civic amenities as basic as roads, foreigner backpackers approach the team, who further coordinate the home owners via government installed satellite phones to make the necessary arrangements. The transaction takes place directly between the tourists and the hosts.
This way, GHE empowers the women population and prevent labour migration from the hamlets; some of which lie on the Silk Road. In five years, GHE has finished electrifying the 65th village on July 23: Thangso in Zanskar. So far, it has installed 377 micro-grids with an overall capacity of 49kW. The solarisation of the villages has mitigated emission of about 500 tons of carbon dioxide gas annually. There are still about 22 villages left in Ladakh from what GHE has identified, while they also explore solar electrification opportunities in the north-east, starting with the Arunachal Pradesh, where about 50 villages have been identified.
The next to get electrified is Ralakung in Ladakh, where voting booth has to be flown through choppers during elections, shares Loomba.
From limited grid supply to decentralising power
While few villages had no electricity, there were others with limited supply, as less as three hours a day. Villages like Samurtha, Dungarpur and Dhaulpur (Rajasthan) relied on the kerosene lamps as the primary source of light at night, which in a way slowed down their pace of life at night. Amid the circumstance, institutions like International Finance Corporation (IFC), IIT Bombay-SoUL etc catalysed a unique kind of friendship among the women of such villages, came to be known as Solar Sahelis (solar friends) – a social enterprise, which promotes renewable energy products. The organisations sold the solar lamps to the Solar Sahelis and the uneducated to less educated women of these villages – transformed into women entrepreneurs – further sold the appliances and ran their households.
In 2015, Baripatha, a tribal village in Odisha of about 61 households and 350 people, got solar panels installed under a CSR project of Ecco Solar with NALCO. The initiative funded individual solar units for each of the households with two lamps each, apart from a central 1 kW unit to light eight street lamps. The project worth Rs 7 lakh came out to be one of the most low-cost solar energy projects. Unlike other central unit projects, these distinct individual units checked the chances of misuse tapped through the exposed cables.
While several parts of the country are switching or opting to the solar power, some state governments seem to be working in the opposite direction under the Saubhagya programme or election pressure or reason(s) best known to them.
Dharnai – the beginning
It isn’t hard to imagine remote villages deprived of electricity but was ‘ironic’ for a village like Dharnai – situated near the Patna-Gaya national highway and having a railway halt – to be one of them. It initially had electricity until the transformer blew up over three decades ago. The villagers relied on diesel generators for agricultural purposes until it got solarised in 2014 by the collaborative efforts of NGOs like the Greenpeace India with two local ones: BASIX and CEED, Pujarini Sen, campaigner for Greenpeace, told The Tribune.
“Dharnai was among the several villages recommended to Nitish Kumar (then Bihar Chief Minister before Jitan Ram Majhi took over) for solar grids. Being uncertain on the success of the project, Kumar proposed if Greenpeace can demonstrate the success of the model in one village, it will be replicated for others,” Sen added. The solar grid thus installed illuminated two schools, a health centre, a farmer training centre, an Anganwadi, about 450 houses comprising 2,400 residents, other than the commercial shops, water pumps and the street lights.
“Kumar (while Majhi had taken over) had inaugurated the grid. Surprisingly, within a month, preparations started to electrify the village – that had not got the government’s attention so far – through the main grid,” says Vivek, another campaigner.
Whether the success of the model encouraged the government to replicate the model to other villagers, “not that we are aware of, however, renewable energy policy is being extensively worked upon by the government,” hopes Nandikesh, another Greenpeace campaigner.
Politics over power
In June 2015, the Uttar Pradesh government handpicked Kannauj (UP) – then parliamentary constituency of Dimple Yadav, also former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s wife – to completely transform into a solar powered village by installing a 250 kW solar plant. The plant feeds residential and commercial needs of two villages in Tirwa region – Fakirpura and Chanduahaar. All of about 450 households were also given two LED bulbs of 5W and 7W each.
For lack of access to electricity despite having electric poles, areas of UP and Bihar had been a potential market for solar grids, notes Saurabh Mehta, an entrepreneur who used to install solar grids for profit. However, Mehta exclaims that with the general elections approaching in 2014, the government hastened the electrification of each household leading to Mehta losing his potential customers.
Fall before the rise
The solar industry in India is currently worth Rs 30,000 crore. As per the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, five of the world’s 14 largest under-construction solar parks are located in India, namely: Bhadla Industrial Solar Park (2,225 MW; Rajasthan), Pavagada Solar Park (2 GW; Karnataka), Rewa Solar Parj (750 MW; Madhya Pradesh), Ananthapuramu – I Solar Park (1.5 GW) and Kadapa Ultra Mega Solar Park (1 GW) – both in Andhra Pradesh. Two of the world’s top 10 operating solar plants are in India too – Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park (1 GW; Andhra Pradesh) and the Adani Kamuthi Solar Plant (648 MW; Tamil Nadu). Yet, according to reports3, the solar industry may face hiccups as the corporate funding within the industry has fallen from Q4 2017 to Q1 2018. The government has to fix issues like anti-dumping duty imposition on foreign modules, GST, falling solar tariff, failure in meeting renewable purchase obligation in most states etc. – to attract the investors.
Laudably, on May 10, world’s third-biggest solar market – India – had scrapped the blanket safeguard duty on solar modules making it easier to import the products. India’s position in the ISA has given it an access to $1 trillion in low-cost financing for solar power projects till 2030. If India surpasses the funding hurdle, solar manufacturing would help it improve its manufacturing infrastructure, combat energy crisis, boost employment and bring on socio-economic reform.
Immediate need to switch
As per Greenpeace India, a 2017 study based on the satellite data identifies that emissions have increased by approximately 32% across the country in the last five years. Their ‘Out of Sight’ (2016) report had identified air pollution hotspots in India visibly linked to the clusters of thermal power plants. As of December 7, 2017, over 300 coal power plants in India were violating the emission standard norms given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2015, which were to come in effect by December 7. However, despite the alarming pollution numbers in the country, the Ministry of Power, the Central Electricity Authority and the power industry are attempting to push the dates further till 2022-24 and also relaxing the water usage limits.
Stressing on the impact on public health due to emissions, the former Indian Medical Association chairman Dr K K Agrawal said, “As a representative of the medical fraternity, I cannot emphasise enough the necessity of reducing emissions from thermal power plants.” He expressed concern for villages and towns near these plants, especially “those with lung disorders and breathing issues,” who are also “highly vulnerable”.
It would be wrong to state that the country lacks determination to get solarised. Yet, despite myriad of health and environmental warnings, coal continues to be the primary source of power generation in India as the electricity generated by solar is much lesser than that by the coal plants. The non-affordability to install solar power plants also contributes to the problem. Channelling CSR funds and encouraging PPP model in solar industry may help the finances. However, reports like turning National Clean Energy Funds into GST compensation may reflect negatively.
An edited version of this article was published in Tribune