On Dark Streets with Solar

Tags: outreach sustainability solar photovoltaic systems solar pumps solar home lighting renewable energy
on dark streets with solar_en_9mAurore is promoting renewable energy applications within and outside Auroville. Auroville is seen as the perfect testing ground for some of those applications, once an application has been proven to work in Auroville it is being transferred to other parts of the country.

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Hemant and Jos, the managers of AuroRE, a unit responsible for promoting renewable energy applications within and outside Auroville, talk about their new project.

It's dynamics. We learn what works in Auroville, we take it out to other parts of India where we learn new lessons which, in turn, help us improve what we are doing here." Hemant enjoys talking systems. He's also pretty nifty at setting them up: he's about the only person I know who understands the complex financial jugglery involved in allowing Aurovilians and others to get their hands on solar pump sets at wildly discounted prices. By 1995 about 150 of these sets had been installed in the community, about 150 kW worth of installed capacity. The next year, however, was a quiet one: both the demand and the subsidies dried up. Suddenly, Hemant had time on his hands. "Every day I came to the office just to metaphorically raise the flag in the morning and lower it again in the afternoon." The next major project was the Matrimandir Solar Plant, which was commissioned in 1997, but this was followed by another two year hiatus. "I really began to wonder," recalls Hemant, "if I shouldn't have been doing something else. However, I took the opportunity to search out creative solutions for financing solar developments, and this finally bore fruit."

The 'fruit' was a contract to set up the financial package for providing solar pump sets to farmers in the Punjab and other states: AuroRE was also responsible for the installation and servicing. "There were times when I thought we'd bitten off more than we could chew. We had to install 219 pump sets in 3 months over a huge area - from a border village in Punjab to a place in West Bengal, from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India to the northernmost village in Gujarat - and we were beginning from scratch: we had no office up there, no technicians, no nothing! Fortunately at that moment Jos came along."

Jos has a degree in Renewable Energy technologies and project management experience in both Africa and India. "I knew we could do it," says Jos, "but I also realized it would be a huge challenge. Apart from setting up an office and mastering the logistics of getting all the equipment sent to the right places, we had to train five teams who, at the peak, had to install 7 systems a day. It also meant that Rishi, Arnab and myself, the project managers, had to work 12-13 hour days for three months without a break!" "We made plenty of mistakes," adds Hemant cheerfully, "because we had to design things on the hoof, at top speed. For example, our first design for the tracking mechanism had to be modified after some of the systems developed cracks during an exceptionally windy summer. We ended up replacing every single tracking mechanism, even the ones which had not developed problems: after all, our reputation was on the line. But we learned something invaluable - how to do far-flung projects."

This was just as well because the next one was even further flung: in remote and beautiful Ladakh. This region is no stranger to solar projects as the high altitudes offer ideal conditions - low ambient temperatures and more sunny days per year than any other part of India - and the huge distances and widely dispersed population makes the generation of electricity by conventional means unviable. Yet even by Ladakh's standards this is to be a huge project: over five years, at a cost of 433 crore rupees (approximately $86 million), thousands of home-lighting systems and solar lanterns will be distributed, and solar power plants, similar in size to that at Matrimandir, will be set up to provide electricity to remote villages.

"Fortunately," says Jos, "this time we were only responsible for the project coordination of part of the first phase, but this still involved supervising the installation of 8,700 home lighting kits - comprising a 37 Watt solar panel, battery, charge controller and two 11 Watt lights - and 6,000 solar lanterns. The latter went mainly to nomadic herdsmen while the home lighting sets were for houses in remote villages. What was unique about this scheme was that, unlike previous schemes, the government was not giving away the systems free. Instead, the end-user had to make an initial down payment and thereafter pay a small fee every month. The funds collected pay for regular servicing by technicians as well as battery replacement after five years, something which previous government schemes had disastrously overlooked. A further innovation is that the money stays in the community: the local panchayats are responsible for collecting the fees."

"The best reward," says Jos, "was seeing the enormous impact these systems had on people. I went to inspect the installation in one house which had missed out on all the previous electrification schemes. A woman showed me the old wick lamp she had been using for years. Then she switched on her new light. She had tears in her eyes. She just couldn't believe how much light she had now! In fact, the local name for it is 'rangwang ot', or 'the anytime light'."

The Ladakh project was an energy service scheme. In other words, the end user hires an energy service rather than purchasing the equipment outright. "Similar schemes have been tried successfully in many other countries," points out Hemant, "and I'd been interested in the concept for years. Finally, after long talks with friends in the solar fraternity, it emerged that one local application could be to rent out solar lanterns." A friend suggested they begin in Chennai and offered his house for the incubation phase of the project. What made this even more interesting for Hemant and Jos was that this friend had helped some local slum children get an education and was looking around for something for them to do next. "It seemed perfect," says Hemant. "The project could fulfill two objectives at once, helping us break into the energy provider market while providing these boys with the next step in their careers." The operative word here is 'could'. "We were really on dark streets with this one," admits Hemant, "we had no idea how it would turn out."

In the event, a niece of the Chennai sponsor took up the supervision of the project, and while the first two boys didn't stick it out, the next two came up trumps. "They're much better businessmen than us," says Jos admiringly. "They went to the vendors on the beach - who, as slum-dwellers, were part of the same 'family' - and offered to rent them solar lanterns for the same price as the vendors previously paid to hire out Petromax lanterns. Then they increased the price for weekends and holidays, the really busy times. They began with one lantern, now they're up to 65!"

The vendors pay a deposit, then rent the lanterns by the night. Originally the boys brought the lanterns to the vendors in the evening, then picked them up late at night, but now the vendors collect the lanterns from the house where they are charged up by solar panels during the day. AuroRE chooses and provides the technology - the lanterns, chargers and solar panels - and also provides a loan for part of the cost of the equipment (well-wishers have donated the rest).

"Everybody's learned a lot," says Hemant. "The beach environment is very hostile - all that sand and wind - but after some initial training the boys now do all the necessary servicing themselves. They're incredible! Meanwhile market forces are telling us which is the best lantern - our initial design was rejected by the vendors because it didn't give enough light, so we had to come up with a bigger one. It also emerged that the solar lanterns are 'gender-positive': unlike the Petromax lanterns, our lanterns can easily be lit by ladies, thus giving them more independence."

AuroRE plans to expand the scheme in Chennai. They are also considering introducing it to Pondicherry street vendors. While Hemant can hardly contain his enthusiasm it takes a lot to make an economist completely lose his head. "The key component in all this is the battery," he points out. "The batteries in the lights are supposed to last five years but we just don't know how they will perform. If they give out in one and a half years, we're definitely making a loss. If they last three years, we're ahead. And if they hold out for four years we're going to start issuing shares in this enterprise to all Aurovilians!" As for the future...Hemant takes a deep breath and launches out while Jos leans forward, trying to look as if this isn't new to him too. I see three areas which we'll be involved in. Firstly, product integration using advanced solar technologies: in other words, we'll identify the best components then put them together in an optimized system. We're already working on an improved solar rice cooker, solar lantern and solar home lighting kit. Secondly we want to focus much more upon providing renewable energy services, similar to the experiment in Chennai and particularly in the area of solar thermal applications. In the long run we may explore community solar cooking applications on the scale of our Solar Kitchen. Finally we need to consolidate our experience of project management, which is the activity which runs everything else that we're doing at present. "Basically, we'd like to see our role as a catalytic agent, like the hub of a network. In this way we could remain small but we'd have the freedom to develop techniques and applications which would then spread through a network of suppliers, entrepreneurs, NGOs etc. into India as a whole."

Why stop at India? I'm about to ask. But my tape has run out...


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