How Small-Scale Solar is Helping One Rural Indian Community Thrive
The Best Solution for Rural Electrification in the Developing World is a Decentralized, Renewable Energy Approach
The original version of this piece was posted in Project Survival Media
All photos courtesy Project Survival Media
A serene village with green paddy fields and unpaved lanes dotted with huts and shops, Laxmikantapur provides a glimpse of the stereotypical rural India. The village, which relies heavily on agriculture for income and sustenance, is located at the southern end of eastern Indian state of West Bengal, close to the Bay of Bengal.
In a country where more than 60 percent of its population lives in rural areas, Laxmikantapur provides a telling example of poverty, lack of basic infrastructure like electricity, as well as vulnerability to perils of climate change. (Since the village is very close to the Indian Ocean, it is vulnerable to extreme weather events like storms and tropical cyclones which climate scientists say are increasing intensity.)
Like in many other un-electrified villages in India, people in Laxmikantapur depend on kerosene for nighttime lighting. As the dusk descends, women cook evening meals in the dim light of kerosene lamps and children struggle to read. Shops and local enterprises that aspire to work in the night, too, are forced to rely on this polluting and hazardous light source.
“Our kids study under this lamp in the evenings. But when the rains [and wind] extinguish the light and hurt their eyes, they can’t study,” says Jhuma Jalan, a homemaker, as she cooks the family’s evening meal in a small thatched hut poorly lit by a kerosene lamp. The sulphur and nitrogen based emissions from burning kerosene also deteriorate their health — a major heath issue in un-electrified rural Indian homes. Besides kerosene doesn’t come cheap.
“Even the poorest of people (in the village) spend Rs.100-150 ($2-3) a month on kerosene and a little better off family spends Rs.300-400,” says Kapilananda Mondal, founder of Vivekananda Sevakendra Sishu Uddyan, a local organization working on micro-enterprise development in Laxmikantapur. Also, incidents of state-sanctioned distributors hoarding government-subsidized kerosene stocks and selling it at a higher price in the black market, are common here, as in other parts of the country.
The Government of India, which is largely dependent on coal-based electricity, has set a target to power the entire country this year. But halfway into 2012 there are still about 80,000 villages across the country that are without power. Further, there’s also the issue fossil fuel-based power aggravating global climate change. Which is why the best solution for rural electrification is a decentralized, renewable energy approach.
The good news is, several social enterprises have embarked on clean and viable renewable energy-based solutions to light up rural India. And as an ongoing solar energy initiative in Laxmikantapur shows, these solutions are proving very effective.
Onergy, a for-profit enterprise based in Laxmikantapur has disseminated small-scale energy solutions like solar powered LED lamps and cell phone chargers. The founders of the enterprise realized the need for small-scale solar solutions in Laxmikantapur and surrounding villages disconnected from the central power grid. Community demand for solar solutions, paired with the guidance of established enterprises have led to partnerships with donor organizations to subsidize solar products. This makes solar energy far more affordable for many low-income, rural communities.
Photo courtesy Project Survival Media
Onergy has successfully demonstrated that they have a viable business model to sustain the enterprise. It has collaborated with other, more established local organizations like VSSU and Milaap, an online micro-lending social enterprise, in order to provide villagers low cost loans to buy solar devices. The company has three “Shakti Kendras,” or energy centers, which coordinate the assembling, distribution and service of small solar devices. Apart from providing renewable energy solutions, these centers also provide employment to villagers struggling to make ends meet.
Villagers like Saifulla Baidla, a former farmer whose crop was suffering from unreliable weather patterns, joined Onergy as a distributor and has not only managed to supplement his income, but is now able to provide clean, safe, and affordable solar lights to his friends and neighbors. So did Pradip, who would have migrated to the Kolkata city for employment if not for the opportunity to work as a technician in Onergy.
Solar technology has changed the lives of housewives like Shantana who hadn’t ever stepped out for work earlier simply because there weren’t any opportunities. But after receiving training on cook stove construction from Onergy, she now works as a consultant in the village, helping people install safer, cleaner, efficient stoves in their houses.
Other businesses in the village are also benefiting from the enterprise. Baker Yousuf Molla purchased a 40-watt solar home lighting system and is now able to run his bakery for four additional hours in the evening. And the women at his home are able to work on their embroidery business at night. Kakoli Giri doubled her family income by making paper bags under solar light at night. Not only does the light help her kids study better, but she also saves Rs. 240 ($4) per month on kerosene. Using the solar cell phone charger, she can save Rs. 120 ($2) per month which otherwise would have been spent on charging stations in the locality.
The direct impact of solar energy based solutions is quite evident from the real life examples of Laxmikantapur. Each solar lantern displaces at the least 132 gallons kerosene and avoids nearly 1.5 tons of CO2 emissions in its 10-year lifetime. Hence, the avoided environmental impact of promoting such technologies on a large scale is a major step towards climate change mitigation. The social enterprises like Onergy working in rural energy sector provide immense motivation to replicate small solar solutions in other rural regions in India as well as in communities world over.
While it must be underscored that there is no unique model that is successfully replicable, the learning from dissemination of renewable technologies should propel innovative thinking in this direction. Such an attempt must take the factors of local energy demand, acceptance, sociopolitical framework etc. into consideration.
While environmental degradation caused during industrial revolution cannot be undone, it is possible to explore climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions for a new world order —it after all being a matter of survival!
Gautham Krishnadas is a researcher and writer for Project Survival Media's program Solutions for Survival (S4S). A graduate engineer from the National Institute of Technology Surathkal, Karnataka, he has extensive research experience on climate change mitigation and technology. Project Survival Media is an Earth Island Institute project.