Tesla-The spirit of Innovation

“All our patents belong to you” . When Elon Musk, serial entrepreneur, innovator and clean energy champion wrote down these words in his blog, companies around the world were shocked.We have seen enough of fights between global giants in the name of intellectual property rights, copy rights etc.  Thanks a ton Elon for reminding the world about a fact which we all chose to ignore for quite sometime that ‘ innovation is for the betterment of humanity, it is to be shared’. It is true that a new technology comes with a cost and patents do help companies and entrepreneurs to compensate for these costs. My intention is not to come up with a point that every company should follow the same suite or intellectual property rights are bad. Just thought of celebrating this spirit of innovation and appreciate the move that was made with a larger goal of promoting competition and efficiency in clean transportation systems.

Elon Musk With Tesla S

Courtesy: Reuters

The Data available from Environmental protection agency, U.S suggests that 27 % of GHG emissions in U.S  are attributed to the transportation sector whereas within the sector close to 59% comes from the segment of light vehicles. This broad scenario gives us an idea about the importance of the space in which Tesla is trying to operate  Meanwhile the idea of sustainable transportation has not received much attention as more and more people have started buying individual vehicles. The case is not so different in India also. At this juncture the revolutionary step taken by Tesla is expected to bring in a huge change in the sector by making electric vehicles  competent and affordable for the masses.

Elon Musk, who serves as an inspiration for a lot of people like us in the clean energy space has successfully created (Co founded some of them) Zip 2,Pay Pal,Space X. The collaboration with solar city in which he is a board member is also an example for his commitment in creating systems to combat climate change. Meanwhile the mega factory for the production of batteries is supposed to bring about a revolution in the energy storage systems which is regarded as the biggest problem faced by the intermittent nature of  renewable energy  systems. In a way the entire ecosystem is closely observed as opening up of a new paradigm in the clean energy and transport system.

Wait,Did anyone of u think that i am doing a promo for Tesla or writing a biography of Musk? Not exactly, i believe that there are lot of things which we can learn from the model of Tesla.  We do have innovations, but why doesn’t that work? The answer is that many of our innovations are just  makeshift arrangements. We need to go beyond that.  We  have adopted the Jugaad model into anything and everything that deals with innovation. Something like making lassi in washing machines to achieve efficiency and economies of scale sounds good. But that kind of approach shouldn’t be copied in to many of our critical technologies like energy access, infrastructure etc. For us low cost shouldn’t mean that we are using outdated technologies.

The government should create a suitable  ecosystem for entrepreneurs so that they can actively engage with new technologies and innovations. Especially in the case of clean energy, money should be spent on R & D and manufacturing sectors as it was envisaged while formulating National Clean Energy Fund. On the other hand the indigenous knowledge systems should be preserved and grass root innovators should be encouraged with proper support and scale up systems. Last but not the least, a knowledge sharing mechanism and access to these systems needs to be in place at the central level so that there is faster dissemination and action on the ground. The example of Tesla reminds us the need for constant innovations and the willingness to share these knowledge for the betterment of the entire humanity. We hope this will have long lasting implications for the advancement of  clean transport systems for our country as the latest news is that Mahindra and Mahindra is trying to review Tesla patents for applicability to its electric vehicles.

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Energiewende – The German energy transition and lessons for India

If Germany can do that, why can’t we? A question which any renewable energy enthusiast will have to face during a serious discussion about the growth of renewables in our country. Yes, we are talking about energiewende- the German energy transition. In a recent round table conference about energiewende , the discussions were around the possibilities of such an energy transition in India with an emphasis on decentralized energy systems. In the light of above said discussions there is a dire need for deciphering the so called energy transition in order to create awareness and learn important lessons from the same. This discussion is expected to burst some myths about the German experience and hopes to do some brainstorming on the Indian possibilities on a similar scale.

About Energiewende

There is a popular misconception that energiewende started after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. But the truth is that Germany started this journey long back with concerted efforts in bringing renewable energy to the forefront. This is clearly evident from the various policies and legal frameworks which  evolved during these years. The transition scenario traces its roots to the strong anti-nuclear movement in the 1970’s; the oil crisis and a subsequent urge to move towards a sustainable energy framework. In the early 2000’s the advent of EEG act (Renewable energy act) and Feed-In- Tariff policies created a favourable environment for faster deployment of renewable energy technologies. But energiewende in its present form can be attributed to the programme involving the three goals of

  • Meeting one third renewables share in electricity by 2020
  • Reducing the energy consumption by one fifth
  • Reducing emissions drastically.

In some sense Germany has set ambitious targets way beyond the goals set by the European Union for its member countries. It is indeed appreciable that it has taken the lead in setting an example for other countries in case of demonstrating the viability of alternative energy systems.The energy transition story grabbed the limelight when it decided to phase out  nuclear plants accounting to 8.4 GW post Fukushima nuclear disaster and are in the process of closing another 12.5 GW by 2022. This aggressive move has resulted in an increased dependence on coal power plants to compliment for the increased penetration of renewables which are intermittent. Critics of energiewende have claimed and increase in emissions pointing towards long term impacts on the overall goals set by the country. So the overall effectiveness of the programme is still debatable and the ever increasing electricity bills for domestic consumers is a major concern. The tariff model of cross subsidization is a complete inversion of what we observe in India. In order to protect its strong industrial sector, the domestic consumers are charged high while industries are exempted from paying the surcharges. In addition to this there are criticism against the grid stability claims amidst the frequent black outs and outages which even talks about grid vulnerability in the neighbouring countries. 

table 2

India’s possible energy transition

Lessons from international best practices are of little use if we fail to consider the typical Indian scenarios for the energy sector. For a country where 300 million people still await reliable and affordable access to electricity, the priorities should be energy access and energy security rather than a low carbon growth. This doesn’t mean that we should follow a high emission path. But rather an approach of a perfect mix of decentralized and conventional systems that can reach out to the un-electrified villages seems to be appropriate for us. A  more coordinated approach of various government programmes and implementation agencies is expected at this juncture.In some sense it is desirable for Ministry of power to completely take charge of the ‘energy access’ sphere while the emphasis of renewable energy penetration can be vested on  MNRE so that there is no conflict of interest and multiplicity of schemes.

In Germany the grid has reached almost  every nook and corner of the country.Moreover they have enough and more generation capacity to meet their demands.We should be paying attention to  these two infrastructural issues while envisaging a proper energy transition.The recent debates surrounding grid extension V/s standalone systems become an important factor in this regard where prioritizing our goals would decide the success of such a programme. The urge to move towards a renewables based system should take into consideration all these aspects. In the end mere achievement of certain milestones won’t make any sense unless and until the large chunk of our population gets benefits out of it.

Strengthening of village electricity committees (remember in Germany  a large chunk of renewables is fed to the grid by village cooperatives), Grid infrastructure and institutional mechanisms thus becomes the initial steps to be taken in this regard.  The model of village electricity committees can serve as an important step in ensuring the dissemination of the benefits of electricity the poorest of the poor. This would include a proper coordination mechanism, policy support and institutional reforms at the Panchayath level.

Solar roof top systems are supposed to be one of the major determinants renewable energy revolution in the country. A proper framework with net metering policy would serve the development of rooftop systems which can actually form the backbone of such a massive energy transition. This coupled with proper energy efficiency measures or rather a complete DSM (Demand Side Management) based system is the best option for India.  Even after having a proper ‘Energy conservation Act‘, very little progress has been made in this sector which points out to an urgent need for revisiting our energy planning process. Its high time we focus on”Negawatts instead of Megawatts” as once quoted by Amory Lovins.

References:

The energy collective -http://theenergycollective.com/

The energy Transition-http://energytransition.de/

Bloomberg Energy-http://www.bloomberg.com/

 

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Solar Mini Grids: Challenges and the way forward

Gram Oorja, Darewadi

Gram Oorja, Darewadi

Mini grids equipped with smart meters have been lauded as the next big revolution  in the renewable energy arena. In the policy sphere it is believed that there is an urgent need to come up with a viable model of mini grid development, scaling up and financing as it is perceived to be effective in meeting the goals of energy access for all. The direct involvement of communities and further contributions to rural electrification is believed to place mini grids in the limelight for the coming years. The sector mainly driven by a few players’ viz social entrepreneurs and independent power producers has become the favourite of bigger corporations off late due to the perceived impacts on the ground and a growing rural market in the country. Certain Government programmes like DDG* (Under RGGVY**) and Remote Village electrification programme also promote mini grids to some extent. At this juncture there are certain important factors to be considered before we move on to the scaling up and policy design for such projects.

A recent visit to Darewadi solar project, a village situated 140 kms away from pune  (9.4 Kw Solar PV) by Gram Oorja is worth mentioning at this point when we critically think about developing various aspects of a proper mini grid framework. The 40 households  in this small hamlet were completely dependent on kerosene till the execution of the project in 2012. The Project is one of the most efficient Mini grids I have ever visited throughout the country with its quality components and individual metering systems for each Household. In sizing the equipment the growing aspirations of people (anticipating the addition of new equipments in future) have been taken into consideration unlike most of the undersized ‘only for lighting’ projects in the country. This is indeed a welcome step when we talk about decentralized systems moving from a stop gap measure to the long term solution for energy access.

 A village electricity committee is managing the tariff collection, decision making and acts as a regulatory mechanism within the village. Every month the collected amount is remitted in the nearby bank even though the collection efficiency is average. This is  to be used for the replacement of the battery and other maintenance charges. In a way previous experiences shows that imparting the sense of ownership with proper tariff collection has long lasting impact on the sustainability of the projects. Many free projects in the past have failed due to the issues with battery and maintenance and the lack of corpus amount for maintenance  . In the case of productive loads two pumps and an Atta chakki is being put to use with the electricity from the project. The maintenance of the system is also carried out properly with a person form the company visiting the site at least once in a month or in case of emergency repair. But during monsoons power failures and low power production used to be a major constraint.

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From a complete technical perspective such projects can be a model for future mini grid development and replication (in many ways scale up doesn’t make any sense in this perspective) but the monthly tariffs are something to be worried about. In effect the tariff comes to around R.s 20/unit contrary to normal grid connected supply comes to around on an average 5 R.s /unit. It is true that the willingness to pay in these remote locations are calculated relative to the money spent on kerosene but that doesn’t  justify this huge difference of extra 15-20 R.s)unit a poor customer has to pay  to obtain energy access. Moreover the nearest grid connected village is less than a km away from the project site and has a quite reliable grid supply. So grid extension won’t be a big constraint here.

It is quite evident that the selection of the site becomes important when such projects are implemented. The idea of mini grids and renewable energy in itself should not be an end point because for our country the larger goal is to provide reliable energy access to millions of people. So wherever grid extension is possible that should be the first priority but provided the mini grid operators should be protected in a way that grid connectivity is ensured. This is important because we are talking about the efforts of numerous entrepreneurs, NGO’s who have taken the challenge of providing energy access to extremely remote areas where government agencies have failed miserably. The Grid should be strengthened in a way we can facilitate tail end generation from these projects that can reduce the cost for storage systems and increase the reliability of supply. This can also be used by utilities as means to comply with their RPO (Renewable purchase obligation ) target which needs a tight monitoring mechanism in the coming years.

On the financial part the extra burden on the rural consumers can be shared across all the grid connected consumers by levying a small surcharge (if it can be implemented throughout the country which would come to few paisas) in the electricity bills. This fund should be used for the viability gap funding of these projects. Such a system can exist only when there is a regulatory mechanism in place with  proper coordination between Ministry of power and MNRE. Presently there are delays in disbursing the already allotted subsidies for such projects which has impacts on the availability of loans for covering the high upfront capital expenditures. The regional rural banks are already showing the way for nationalized banks in terms of prioritizing lending to renewables in villages.

The conversion of existing pumps from diesel to electricity from these projects can act as a proper load management mechanism wherever inadequate loads are becoming an issue for capacity utilization. Additional interventions coupled with such projects should be completely based on need assessment. Ideally, involvement of local groups and NGO’s are highly advised while coupling energy with allied development activities of productive loads, computers for education, clean drinking water provisions etc. Above all the routine maintenance should be given high priority.

Mini grids can actually revolutionize the energy access and renewable energy scenario in the country. But in some way it is unfortunate that people have now started talking about an approach of Grid extension V/S Isolated mini grids. In a long run this aspect won’t be desirable for our country. Mini grids should be seen largely as complimenting the existing grid wherever it is possible and elsewhere it can be an isolated model. This would also mean that even with in the grid tied scenario the aspects of people’s participation, ownership etc. can be exercised. Finally it’s a decision about our priorities – are we really interested in providing energy access or merely increasing renewable deployment?

*DDG- Decentralized Distributed generation

***RGGVY- Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyuthikaran Yojana

MNRE- Ministry of New and Renewable Energy

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Agumbe – solar power in the jungle

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The making of energy democracy is characterized by the idea of renewable energy touching the lives of people from all walks of life. The inaccessible dense forests of Western Ghats are often the case of dilemma for development interventions owing to their ecological importance. These highly remote areas deep inside the jungle are often completely cut off from the main land due to the lack of proper roads and infrastructure. Many a time the extension of the electricity grid becomes a barrier due to the low density of population, highly scattered housing patterns and the hurdles of forest clearances. At this juncture specific renewable energy technologies play an important role in rural electrification.The twin goals of environment protection and provision of energy security can be met by clean energy technologies in the ghat areas.

 Agumbe, situated almost 30 kms from sringeri- a temple town in Karnataka ,claims to be the second wettest place in India and the abode of highly venomous and mighty king cobras. For this very reason the Agumbe Rain forest Research station (http://www.agumberainforest.com/index.html) which is one of its kind in the country for dedicated research and conservation of king cobras is stationed here. The centre was set up in 2005 by Romulus Whitaker with the support from Whitley Fund for Nature.The institution  carries out high quality research studies and conservation activities by networking with various like-minded organisations and independent researchers in this field.

Being a conservation oriented organisation stationed inside the jungle, the institute itself follows a lot of sustainable practices when it comes to infrastructure and energy. One of the interesting things about station  is that it  is running completely off grid using solar. They use an array of 12 panels (BHEL L1270 type) which together produces a total of 890 WP which is enough to run the entire station. The station also had a microhydel unit which is not functioning now. Even though agumbe has heavy rainfall throughout the year and a steady availability of water the microhydel project is not working properly due to lack of proper maintenance. On the other hand the solar panels are working properly and the battery had to be changed once due to technical issues. As the routine maintenance is carried out properly the solar power system is continuing its operation ever since its installation in 2005.

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On comparing the microhydel and solar projects within the same campus the importance of the flexibility in use of renewable resources, the need of routine checks and proper maintenance of particular technologies are highlighted. On one hand we have a microhydel project in Sirimane (in Chikmagalur in the Ghats) which has been empowering communities for almost 10 years with an uninterrupted supply of power and almost in a similar setting the microhydel project seems to be a failure but the solar panels are working properly. The availability of locally trained technicians and operators becomes an important factor in the case of projects like microhydel which has mechanical parts and rotor systems which needs thorough checks and inspections. In the case of such remote locations where technicians are not readily available solar is quite flexible and for small institutions this becomes affordable and adequate for their needs.

The location of the station, deep inside the forest is an important factor when it comes to the use of standalone renewable energy technologies. This can be one of the major aspects which need specific attention while devising policies related to renewable energy and rural electrification. In remote locations and forest areas if proper technology and capacity along with an assurance of maintenance is carried out then renewable energy technologies proves to be the optimal solution for electrification. In such a situation the zoning of areas into different slots in accordance with their relative remoteness and extend of forest clearance needed would help in devising optimized strategies to choose the type of technology and scale of operation.

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The policy for mini grids can actually incorporate these zoning aspects into consideration. This is important from the point of view that forest clearances by the ministry of forests and environment becomes a crucial part in the process of bringing in energy access to these areas. With the ongoing debates about kasturirangan committee report[1] on the Western Ghats, the construction activities in these highly eco sensitive zones are to be brought under strict supervision. The official ‘no-go’ zones should be mapped beforehand and accordingly the type of technology (wind, solar and micro hydro) can be fixed. In the Western Ghats, we have previous experiences of micro hydel plants violating the norms and taking advantage of the label of renewable energy. This issue can be solved by a proper planning of these zones with the most desirable intervention taking into account the issues of availability of space, costs,  extend of destruction to forests and bio diversity. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/minihydro-projects-still-a-major-threat-to-western-ghats/article4740215.ece).

One of the biggest issue regarding such a project is the lack of locally trained technicians. This can be successfully tackled by ensuring that with the commissioning of project there should be provisions for the collection of ‘corpus fund’ and measures to form cluster level technician’s group so that there would be knowledge sharing, routine maintenance which can prevent bigger technical issues. There are already examples of such systems in Chattisgarh under the solar micro grid projects of CREDA (Chattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Authority) where the technicians play and important role in ensuring the proper maintenance and thus the sustainability of the project.

Thus a solid framework for proper O&M should be one of the important aspects while framing a comprehensive mini grid policy. This can have implications on women empowerment and employment generation if people from such location itself are trained to operate and maintain them. The experience of  barefoot college in Tilonia  (http://www.barefootcollege.org/) points out to the fact that illiterate women from rural areas are transformed successfully into ‘solar engineers’ who goes on to play an important role in the success of the projects. In addition to this government programmes on skill development can include the aspect of creating a workforce for renewable energy which is competent enough in installing and maintaining the projects. In short specific focus has to be given to the human resource development in renewable energy in the country which should be executed on a high priority basis.



[2] Chattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Authority

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Solar Powered Green House Scheme- Tamilnadu

Solar green house , Thoothukudi

Solar green house , Thoothukudi

Renewable energy penetration in rural India has been largely led by social entrepreneurs, private entities and Ngo’s with international funding. With the advent of JNNSM and subsequent renewable energy policies, there has been an increased presence of government in renewable energy dissemination which is supposed to be a key growth driver for the sector. The gradual shift of subsidies and targeted programmes integrating renewable energy has certainly left a mark in the dissemination of clean energy technologies. It is high time various governments come up with schemes envisaging various targeted outcomes in which renewable energy can become an important component. The idea of promoting solar pumps for irrigation, solar based dryers for livelihood promotion etc. can form an important part of this sphere. This would help people in climbing the energy ladder by switching to reliable and clean energy technologies.

The chief minister’s solar powered greenhouse scheme in Tamil Nadu is a pioneer in this regard which integrates the scheme of housing for BPL families with solar home lighting facilities. The project which started in the year 2011 plans to build 60,000 houses each year till 2016. The state has allotted a budget R.s 1080 crores for this project every year. BPL families who own land in their name with a proper patta (documents) are identified and considered under various criteria to provide a house of 300 square feet area with a unit cost of R.s 1, 80000 with a split up of 1, 50000 for construction and 30,000 for solar lighting system. This is first of its kind government housing scheme in the country which has a dedicated solar lighting programme integrated into it.

The programme is carried out under the aegis of rural development and panchayath Raj department, Govt of Tamilnadu and the entire solar lighting component is managed by TEDA. It consists of 5 CFL lamps and the solar panel with batteries with a 5 year comprehensive maintenance contract by the developer. The houses are provided with grid backup and when the net metering policy of government comes into action they can sell excess power back to the grid which is believed to be an important step in promoting the scheme. The guidelines of the project have emphasized three important factors [1] which are crucial to the sustainability of the project.

  • TEDA shall bring out Brochures/Hand outs and other training materials on the usage and maintenance of the SPV equipments.  A Hand out on Dos and Don’ts should also be prepared by TEDA in the local language and distributed to the beneficiaries.
  • Training Modules shall be prepared by TEDA to train the Panchayath Presidents, Panchayath Secretaries, select SHG Members and other local functionaries deemed fit, so that they can serve as effective interface between the beneficiaries and suppliers. the commissioning agencies shall be responsible to train the beneficiaries as well as 4 SHG members in each Panchayath to do regular maintenance
  • call centre would be opened to deal with the queries and complaints of the beneficiaries.

These suggestions prove to be an important aspect which can ensure the smooth functioning of the project. Many a time lack of emphasis on such a provision in renewable energy projects has led to the complete failure of the project. The provisions for the increased presence of panchayath and SHG’s are expected to ensure that the decentralized approach is followed in the case of proper maintenance of the project. This in turn would increase the scope of availability of ‘green jobs’ by engaging the local population with in the loop of maintenance and follow-up. In our country panchayath officials and ward members do play an important role when it comes to the dissemination of the benefits of various schemes to the end users. The provisions for hand-outs and call centre facilities would enable people to tackle the issue of information asymmetry and is expected to equip themselves with quicker service at their doorsteps.

As a part of the site visit, 2 households were interviewed in Ayyanadaipu panchayath who were the beneficiaries of the scheme. With decent infrastructure and perfectly running solar lights the beneficiaries were quite satisfied with the project with almost nearing a year after completion. “The addition of solar component is very useful for us when it comes to household lighting. From 6 – 10 pm we are getting bright light and this helps us to save money in the electricity bill”.Ganeshan, one of the beneficiaries was appreciating the project. Even though the project is fully funded by the state government, the beneficiaries are required to provide their labour towards the civil works for the construction and the amount is released in instalment in accordance with the completion of each phase.  This ensures that the money is not diverted and the ‘sweat equity’ provided by the beneficiary is useful in ensuring the sustainability of the project. The fact that there was a follow up maintenance check by a technician to these areas is also a welcome step in this regard. In short it is the benefits of an energy source of which ease of use is that which ultimately drives the demand as these are the factors people desire over energy access itself (DFID 2012).

This is a very early stage evaluation of the project. There is also a need to check whether the facilities like call centre are working efficiently in a long run as per the scheme document. But as of now the entire project appears to be a torch bearer in terms of the integration of renewable energy into various government projects. The integration of this sort has twin fold benefits of addressing poverty and ensuring long term energy security. Moreover successful government projects are the need of the hour in promoting the visibility of clean energy technologies for our long awaited energy transition and low carbon growth. Even though there have been delays in completion of projects as per schedule and lags in providing solar connections, the overall picture of the scheme looks promising and the beneficiaries seems to be satisfied with the experience so far.  This points us to the importance of having more such innovative schemes from the government which has a mix of components rather than interventions for achieving mere numbers in megawatts. It is advisable to have schemes for solar pumps for irrigation, PHC’s in tribal areas run on solar, schemes for lighting schools etc. Just like policy makers are obsessed with results and numbers, each and every field visit reminds that people do care about visible benefits despite which renewable energy or energy access doesn’t make any sense

 


[1] http://www.tnrd.gov.in/schemes/st_cmspghs.php

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Solar proverbs -“Place panels while the sun shines”

Proverbs are said to be immortal, but it seems that they are prone to modifications at some point in history. The inhabitants of Hosekerahalli slum area, Bangalore serve as an epitome of this when you get to see these small solar panels on their rooftops changing their lives for ever.

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The migrant labourer’s colony in this part of Bangalore were not getting power from the grid as they live in temporary tents and migrate to different parts of the city according to the construction sites they work. This makes the use of solar energy feasible for them than the normal gird. Most of them belong to northern Karnataka and have their children studying in their villages. So their needs in these settlements are mainly limited to lighting and mobile charging. They can also carry these panels along with them to whichever places they go. In short for them renewable energy is flexible and customized.

The two settlements here constitute almost 60 households in which almost 21 of them possess the solar lighting systems. The system provided by SELCO consists of a single solar panel, battery, controller unit, one led light (which consists of 3 blocks of lamps for bright light). They can buy these units with a flexible monthly installment scheme which is being collected by special collection agent. This eases out the financial burden on them and by owning these units it clearly creates the need to maintain them properly contrary to the freely distributed systems in many of such slums.

Each household pays R.s 1000 as a lump sum in the beginning and R.s 500 per month in installments till the total amount of 6000 is reached so as to own the unit. In return they are provided free maintenance and regular checks by the operators of SELCO. The social enterprise has created a very good network of technicians at the local level that the system failures are checked and maintained efficiently.

The people here were previously dependent on kerosene for lighting which would cost them almost 300 R.s per month for kerosene as they had to buy it from outside the public distribution shops which is almost 70 R.s / litre. In addition to this they had to spend R.s 5 for charging mobile once in the nearby shop. It is also worth mentioning that here most of them use their mobile phone as flash torch and radio also. This gives us an interesting picture of how the solar units have empowered the households by lighting their lives and enabling them to charge their mobiles without any external help.

The use of LED lights in the place of kerosene lamps has certainly impacted the lives of people. In the words of Khwaja Hussein “The black soot from these lamps used to cause lot of breathing issues and there was the presence of black particles in the nose especially that of children. With the use of these LED lights we are having access to decent and efficient light from 6 pm in the evening to 6 am in the morning and we don’t have to worry about any electricity bills.” This itself is a testimony of how renewable energy has impacted the development of communities in a direct manner. In poor households the switch from kerosene lamps to solar powered LED lighting is in itself a great achievement when we come to know that a recent study observed that India has an alarming high rate of household air pollution compared to the WHO standards. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/household-air-pollution-way-beyond-safe-limits-in-india/article5418834.ece).

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As most of the inhabitants here work as construction labourers there are no such direct uses of lighting for livelihood activities in a major way but still there was the example of a woman who was carrying out stitching and embroidery works who uses the light so that she can work late in the night and earn extra income and do some urgent works for her customers. This can be a model replicated in such projects where there is an enhancement of livelihood activities other than productive loads, where the lighting systems itself acts a component for enhancing livelihood options. Here the innovation in the design of these customized lanterns helps in achieving that objective.

In short a simple lighting system has empowered the lives of migrant labourers in this colony which emphasize the importance of a need based intervention which actually makes them pay for it and eventually makes them owners of the system. This is a crucial part in renewable energy based interventions where even more efficient mini grids can fail if there is no ownership and need based approach .Moreover the ease of use and flexibility offered by these systems is regarded as the important criteria which determines the success and acceptance of these systems.

The regulatory frameworks and policies for renewable energy based interventions should include the component of local capacity building and should have mandatory provisions that ensure proper maintenance and follow up   without which the entire idea of decentralized energy would be a failure. Decentralized energy should shift the entire paradigm of sustainable development and energy access to the route of empowerment of the customer giving him a choice and proper service for which there is indeed a willingness to pay. Thus it is advisable to evaluate sustainable technologies in the framework of choice based empowerment rather than a complex framework of social and economic impacts.  Using such a framework would help in devising policies and programmes in a more efficient manner.

Subsidies and charity based approaches in the past has not been a successful strategy in tackling the issue of energy poverty. The switch to renewables as a strategy to low carbon growth also doesn’t hold good when it comes to the Indian scenario because any type of customer here goes for a hassle free, properly maintained system which is easy to use regardless of its impact on environment. .There is a need to be recognized as a valuable customer where he is willing to pay for a better service and better quality of light. SELCO is trying to practice this principle with these innovative projects and removes the misconception that sustainable technologies are not affordable for the poor

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Energy philosophy – Ethics of Renewables

The dream of bringing about a renewable energy revolution has been on the cards for quite sometime for a long range of actors starting from multilateral donor agencies, governments, scientists and activists. The climate change debates and conferences around the globe have discussed everything under the sun about mitigation measures but hasn’t changed anything but climate. The underlying issue is that there is no call for a change in lifestyle rather than the offsetting and adaptation measures. Even if you don’t subscribe to Buddhist philosophy of ‘desires are the cause for sorrow’ , here there is no choice but to believe that the aspirations and lifestyles itself is the single biggest problem when we talk about climate change.

Moving on to the moral and ethical domain of climate change it is evident that a clear injustice is been practiced in inter country and intra country strategies. Here the intention is not to discuss the inter country debate about the developed and developing countries regarding the carbon emissions but a rather micro environment of intra country differences in rural and urban population. it is already a well known fact that the ethics of carbon credits are questionable and in the sustainable development paradigm the right to pollute (when it is offsetted elsewhere) in no way can be justified as an ethically correct strategy.

In the context of developing countries like  India this urban and rural divide means a lot to the renewable energy development. Is there a genuine interest in ‘clean and green’fuel availability in the country?. Especially in the context of ambitious national programmes like JNNSM( Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission), it is quite visible that international organisations and donor agencies push for a lot of capacity building in this sector. As a renewable energy enthusiast this move is certainly perceived as positive change  but i take it with a pinch of salt because a line of renewable energy fundamentalism* is emerging here which lacks clarity.

The participatory and decentralized approaches in the rural electrification scenario has been often an anti thesis to the usual claims of empowerment. The question here is in the urban context nobody participates and not even care about the energy sources from which we obtain our electricity. moreover people consider it a pain to be a part of any such endeavors or rather there is not at all a question about participation in any civic matters or infrastructure development. so how come poor farmers and bonded laborers substituting there ‘bread and butter’ with the work for building their micro hydel project becomes empowerment and participation? I find it more of a fancy word or research interest for urban bred people including me who has a green and sustainable world out there but not at all a part of our daily lives.

For instance my experience in Ladakh has been quite interesting when i noticed that there lifestyle is inherently sustainable.Organic farming, solar passive houses and compost toilets are there natural way of living. so philosophically speaking the urban India finds the duality in sustainable living which is totally absent in rural areas. But we still contest the possibilities for rural electrification by emphasizing the remoteness and economics of grid integration. Then let me ask one thing, if the hills of niyamagiri and sarvepalli are accessible for mining and profitable business why it is only a challenge for gird arrival?

This clearly points out the double standards being practiced in the case of energy access for the poor. Even for the activists who blame the dirty coal and mighty nuclear a life style change is not seen to be practiced any where while the poor villagers has to compromise with the inefficient, intermittent renewable energy technologies. I do agree that something is better than nothing , but it is not the way to go forward. The old calculations of ‘willingness to pay’ (money spent on kerosene and fuel wood) are to be substituted with  amount spent by their counterparts in urban areas. which would give entirely a new picture. The energy democracy we envisage should contain participatory models not only in extreme poor areas but also in posh apartments in cities.Other wise it is just the white man’s burden  replaced by the urban elite’s burden. Remember, our ancestors dreamt about living green, we are still debating about living green and for the next generation there is no choice but to live green.This transition of life style is what ‘sustainable development’ would actually mean in my opinion and probably the brundlandt report shaped it differently.

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