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The sun shines on the future

Dec 23, 2009

Rampura in northern India’s Jhansi district is an envy of its neighbouring villages. The reason is that it is perhaps the only village in the entire state that has round-the-clock power supply, thanks to the solar power.

Rampura: Surprised? Well, you may not be the only one. In a state where cities like Lucknow, Agra and Kanpur face regular outages for several hours every day, Rampura has never seen a powerless day. As the sun goes down and the villages nearby plunge into darkness, Rampura's streetlights – connected to an automatic switch at the local powerhouse – turn on at seven sharp and are switched off at four the next morning. Moreover, every home here – whether semi-pukka or kutcha – has a power conserving CFL bulb.

This uninterrupted power supply is courtesy a source of energy that is going to be the fuel of the future. As the world looks for ways to control the climate crisis and yet provide for life's basics like power for the millions, Rampura residents have shown that trapping solar energy for power generation is going to be a sure-shot way to solve India's power crisis.

A private initiative for the generation and distribution of solar power, the venture is unique because it is totally managed by the community. In fact, this is perhaps India's first community-based solar energy programme, started by a Norway-based company Scatec Solar, which has set up an 8.7 KW solar power plant in Rampura. The plant distributes power through a micro grid, approximately one kilometre in length.

The project was conceived, managed and financed by Scatec Solar at the cost of Rs 5 million (US$1=Rs 46.6).

Delhi-based NGO, Development Alternatives (DA), was engaged to identify the beneficiary villages – there are two in Jhansi for now – and mobilise local residents. An electronics company, DD Solar 23 India Pvt. Ltd., which works under the banner of the Bergen Group, has provided the technical know-how.

Lighting the dark lanes

The plant was formally inaugurated on Republic Day 2009. As the dark lanes of the village lit up for the very first time since Independence, an awestruck septuagenarian Thakur Das, remarked, "It is like removing the cataract from the eyes of the entire village."

The solar plant is the pride of Rampura. Informs Sanjay Kumar, the electrical engineer from Bergen Electronics, "There are 60 solar panels in the plant, each one producing 145 watts of power. Besides, there is a battery bank consisting of 24 cells of two volts each, which has power back up for three days, in case there is no sun or during the rains."

Uninterrupted power supply has transformed daily lives here. "Now I cook here while my son sits next to me and studies," says Anita, pointing to the CFL bulb in her small kitchen. Since Anita's husband Dayaram is a plumber and earns good money, she now enjoys the comforts of a cooler and never misses her favourite soaps on the coloured television set proudly displayed in their living room.

There are 69 families in Rampura, of which 44 have a power connection. Each family has paid Rs 1,000 - Rs 500 for the connection and the same for a meter. The power is charged at Rs 4.50 per unit (US$1 = Rs 46.6). Besides this, they also pay Rs 20 per CFL bulb, Rs 80 per fan and cooler and Rs 90 per television set every month. A penalty of Re 1 per day is charged if anyone delays payments.

"This is to inculcate a sense of ownership and responsibility and also to create a corpus, which would help the community maintain the power plant," explains Manoj Mahata, the Programme Manager from DA.

"The tariff has been calculated on the basis of what the villagers were paying for their earlier energy resources – like diesel and kerosene."

The villagers have now formed the Rampura Urja Vikas Samiti (Rampura Power Development Committee), which maintains the billing documents and receipts. It meets every month to discuss problems being faced by consumers and to address complaints and requests.

Rampura falls in the Bundelkhand region of UP, which is plagued by poverty, illiteracy and drought. The village has a population of 332 with 19 families living below the poverty line and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, ever since the solar electrification of the village, economic activity has accelerated. In June a flour mill was set up and it is providing employment to some.

For the children, too, solar power is a boon. They all go to the primary school built on panchayat land that boasts of a computer learning centre. The most popular class here is that of Chandra Prakash Srivastava, the computer teacher, who commutes from Jhansi every day. "Computers have started attracting children to school and they never miss a single class," says Srivastava.

And Niharika, the daughter of Ghanshyam, only strengthens the teacher's claim. "I am learning computers and want to work with them when I grow up. I don't want to work in a field like my father," she says.

The metamorphosis

The metamorphosis of the primary school can be attributed to Rajinder Kumar Kaura, Chairman and Managing Director of the Bergen Group. He got the building and grounds revamped and donated a 29-inch flat screen TV and a personal computer. While the computer is for the children, the television has been installed in a community hall on campus where villagers gather in the evening to watch the news or entertainment programmes.

But life has not changed for the better for everyone in Rampura. As usual, it is the women who have not really benefited. Take the case of Ramshri, who despite having a power connection at home works in the faint glow of the 'diya' (earthen lamp) in her kitchen.

Unfortunately, in most homes, the CFL bulb is fixed in the front room where the men sleep or eat. "Only a little light from the other room filters into the kitchen," says Ramshri. And she is certainly not an exception.

So why can't there be more than one bulb in every home? The economics works against it. Most people will be unwilling to bear the additional costs simply because of the lack of earning opportunities. But this, too, may change.

Explains Amitabh Verma, Vice President (Technology), Scatec Solar: "Generation of one unit of electricity costs Rs 16-20. The objective behind the solar power plant is to produce electricity not for domestic use alone but to generate economic activities by encouraging small-time industries."

The industrial activities in the pipeline include units to make battery operated mobile pumps for irrigation and food and milk processing units.

Scatec Solar's project, which has the backing of the Government of India's Ministry of Renewable Energy and the Ministry of Environment and International Development, Government of Norway, is proving to be a success.

"Today, the most common alternative source to power generation in remote villages of India is diesel generators. But these have very high operating costs along with an environmentally poor carbon footprint. We want to use the project to demonstrate the viability of solar power, which will enable a large-scale roll-out across India," says Verma.

For now, the only drawback is the high cost of power generation. But Ravi Khanna, President and CEO, Scatec Solar, is optimistic.

"As prices continue to drop in the solar industry, decentralised solar power plants will become more competitive," he says.

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