A sunny solution to India’s energy woes

In India’s desert state of Rajasthan summer temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees centigrade. Here electricity can be as elusive as rain. Blackouts are an everyday experience for most. While in some villages, electricity is non-existent. Now, the government and NGOs are looking to the sky to solve the state’s electricity woes.

Aired on Asia Calling, September 4, 2010

Aired on Deutsche Welle Radio’s Living Planet, October 29, 2010

Sandhya Rai is married with three children, and lives in a small village in Bihar, in Central India. Her family often live on less than one US dollar a day and they have no access to electricity.

“In my village there is no electricity. To see electricity we have to walk 20 to 30 kilometres to the nearest town.”

Almost 20 per cent of India’s villages have no electricity.

And Rajasthan, according to the Indian Government’s Central Electricity Authority, is one of the ten states which is lagging behind the national average.

Bunker Roy is the founder of Barefoot College, which is training women on how to install and repair solar panels in India’s villages.

“The electricity situation in Rajasthan is grim. Power cuts galore, these conventional grid systems are expensive, wasteful and they spike a lot and usually you have bulbs bursting because of the spiking.”

However, Rajasthan does have one distinct advantage over other Indian states, says Professor Vijay who is the Director of the Centre for Non Conventional Energy Resources, at the University of Rajasthan. He says that the desert state just needs to start thinking creatively about energy.

“We are lucky in Rajasthan that throughout the year more than 10 hours a day we get a very bright sunshine…If we plan to have a solar plant in big cities then at least 20 to 30 percent of their electricity need can be supplemented with the solar energy technology.”

But, he admits, there is still a while to go before solar energy is both affordable and effective enough to be used on a large scale.

“The city like Jaipur which has a population nearing about .5 million, so it is very difficult to make a solar plant to justify the need for the whole city. However, a small plant can be built in an area of about five kilometers square and which can justify the needs of about .01 million people.”

The Barefoot College in Rajasthan has adopted an even more localised approach to solar energy. They are taking solar panels straight to the homes in India’s villages where there is no electricity. At the college, women undergo an intensive six-month training course, during which they learn how to install and maintain solar panels.

“We are hoping to have technically and financially self-sufficient villages, which are not dependant on anybody from outside.”

Once they have finished their training, the women will be able to install simple solar packs that can charge a lantern, as well as a mobile phone.

The packs, which costs less than 130 US dollars each, aren’t powerful enough to run a computer or television – but they will drastically improve village life.

“For the first time you are delivering babies through traditional midwives using solar lanterns instead of candles and instead of torches and batteries. You also have communication channels opening up. The first time you have a solar lantern in a village and women have started gossiping otherwise you will be spending a night in the dark.”

Sandhya Rai is among the women learning at the college. When she returns to her village in three months, Sandhya will introduce electricity. It will change their lives forever, she says.

“These solar lamps they will really help the children, because they can have night schools. We won’t have to worry now about spending a lot of money on kerosene for lamps at night, so we will be able to afford to give our children an education. I want my children to learn English, so they can have better lives.”

At the Barefoot College, Roy believes they have proven that solar energy is a viable and affordable alternative for Rajasthan’s villages.

“We have shown that with 2.5 million dollars you can train about 140 grandmothers, you can solar electrify 10,000 houses, you can save about 100,000 litres of kerosene a month.”

Now he is just waiting for the rest of India to catch on.

“There are over a 100,000 villages in India today, which will never have conventional grid. You have to go alternative.”


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