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How decentralized energy solutions power rural units

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Blocked by barricades on both sides of NH 48, Patrenahalli is a nondescript village on the Bengaluru-Pune highway. Most of its inhabitants belong to the ancient nomadic Lambani community. L. Kumar, 41, his wife, N. Sashikala, 32, and their two children, K. Uday, 15, and K. Ashwini, 13, are busy spinning ropes on the coir thread machine in their little front yard. The yard is en bloc with bundles of ropes of various sizes and shapes. A small rectangular device at the top of the machine is the only sign that the machine is powered by solar energy.

Kumar disconnects the device from the machine to show how they were turning the strings manually. Suddenly, clicking noises echoed through a courtyard that had been so quiet that the bulbuls could be heard chirping over the moringa. Previously, he explains, one person had to keep spinning a wheel behind the machine; today, the small solar motor does the job. Work that would require at least 10 hours of forced labor from a minimum of three people is now done by two people in just over half the time.

“We had to hire workers and it would take at least one or two more working days to produce as much as we are doing now. The cost of paying workers would also reduce our profits, ”Kumar explains. He adds, “With the solar powered machine we are able to pack more packs every day, my son and daughter can take breaks to attend their online classes on the phone and I don’t have to run. wheel. day and night to operate the machine.

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The small 75 watt solar panel from Solar Light Pvt. Ltd (Selco), the 60mAh battery and custom designed motor, all of which cost ??17,000 in total, brought the benefits of Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) – energy generated near where it will be used, rather than in an industrial factory and sent through the national grid – directly to the family of Kumar.

Along with companies such as Sustaintech, SNL Energy Solutions and Envo Renewable Energy Services, Bengaluru-headquartered Selco, one of the oldest in the field, specializes in decentralized solar energy solutions. With over 45 branches across Karnataka and a few other parts of India, it has been helping to deliver solar power solutions of various shapes and sizes for 25 years, installing everything from light bulbs in tribal hamlets solar powered Western Ghats. gas pumps that need constant power throughout the day.

As governments examine the big picture of the ‘green transition’ in the energy sector and set a target of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, it is companies like Selco that are trying to solve the problems. inconsistent electricity supply problems that small entrepreneurs and businesses in rural and semi-urban India deal with on a daily basis.

L. Kumar and his wife spin coconut thread into ropes using a solar-powered device.
(Sibi Arasu)


Customers can approach a company with their requirements; companies also visit villages and towns. They meet a variety of needs, whether it is a roast-liner, a food processing unit or a coir thread machine. The cost depends on the needs and the size. They also partner with microfinance companies and banks to arrange loans for clients. All equipment powered by DRE is covered by a two-year warranty. A solar panel should have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years and the battery approximately 10 years.

Harish Hande, Magsaysay Award winner and one of the founders of Selco India, says: “Now the fuel source is decentralized, the sun is decentralized, so why not use it to design a system in the same way? It is a change in thought process, a change in belief that the grid is king, and greater awareness.

Scaling

What businesses and their customers are looking for is a demand-driven approach that will drive innovation and policies that can help develop customized solutions. Because, experts agree that DRE can play a huge role in improving lives and livelihoods.

“One of the problems in the social sector is that the solutions are personalized in nature, so scaling up can be a challenge. While social enterprises can create knowledge, it is up to government and policy makers to increase the magnitude of the impact, ”says Professor Sourav Mukherji of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.

Professor Mukherji, who has served on advisory groups at Selco and included the work done by DRE companies in his lectures, is familiar with the challenges they face, both on the ground and at the political level. “Given the climate crisis, we need to focus on large-scale RE projects. There is no doubt about that. I think the tragedy is that this focus, sometimes, comes at the expense of smaller, decentralized REs. I think ideally there should be space and an incentive for these two sectors to move forward in India. “

This is a point underlined by Rachita Misra, associate director of the Selco Foundation. “The network, unfortunately, is unreliable in many parts of India. And where it is reliable, it slowly becomes expensive for many. It disproportionately affects rural life and livelihoods. Power outages can be costly for businesses. If you are not able to deliver the goods on time or if a customer arrives and I have no electricity at the moment, they will go to the next person and it is a customer who is lost forever .

Companies are trying to solve these problems as best they can. “In terms of RE, the moment you change the idea to lean towards the end user, the way you innovate changes,” says Misra. “You can think of decoupling the growth from energy. Until large sections of the population have access to a centralized energy supply, DRE can play a huge role in improving lives and livelihoods.

Customized solutions

Take the case of D. Nagabhushan, 47, owner of a DTP and photocopying kiosk in the railway town of Davangere, in central Karnataka. Nagabhushan has been bedridden for many years due to abnormal spinal growth. The Association of People with Disabilities (APD), an organization based in Bangalore, helped him regain mobility and then started a small business in 2015 to support himself and his family. APD and the Selco Foundation built its kiosk in 2019 and provided printers, fans and lights, all powered by a small solar panel above the kiosk.

“Running on solar energy has increased my profits by at least ??200-400 every day. Although the pandemic and the lockdown have affected business, things are improving now and I hope to expand my business soon to include a few more computers for surfing the internet and filling out online forms, if I can, ”Nagabhushan says . “For someone like me, I wouldn’t have imagined being able to make a living a few years ago. So being able to do it now is really amazing for me, ”he adds.

There are thousands of users like him.

“We have a wonderful country in terms of decentralization. We have institutions like cooperatives and self-help groups, which means that you can really create this new model of decentralized development, ”says Misra. She adds, “It’s not that DRE is the only way to do it, but we believe that DRE allows us to look at demand-driven innovations. This means that we are not making sure that a person or a company uses more energy in order for the grid to be workable, but it is about determining how to optimize the energy supply in the best possible way, so that it becomes affordable for everyone.

Back in Davangere, it is late in the evening and Nagabhushan is about to close for the day. He is happy that the business is operating again. “The lockdown was really tough, but my family and I were successful one way or another. The extra few hundred rupees that I earn from using solar power instead of paying for a connection make a big difference to us.

He adds: “If everything goes back to normal, my dream is to run everything on solar energy in the store. I also want to get additional systems and help other disabled people start similar businesses in Davangere if I can, that’s my long term plan. This way my business can grow and they can make a good living as well.

Sibi Arasu is a journalist based in Bengaluru and tweets @ sibi123. This story was supported by a reporting grant from the Earth Journalism Network of Internews.

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