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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About felixvarghese

Chemical Engineer, Independent Analyst in Renewable Energy, Work experience with SELCO Foundation and Prayas energy group. Environment enthusiast and in love with renewable energy.
This entry was posted in Energy news, Energy poverty, Environment, Renewable Energy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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