Hope flickers

Solar electricity lights the maximum number of villages in Chhattisgarh—but barely so

 
By Ruhi Kandhari
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Hope flickers

imageTucked away in the Barnawapara wildlife sanctuary of Chhattisgarh is a small village, Deba. The national power grid is yet to reach there. But there is no interruption in the scheduled power supply to its 75 households. While power cuts are frequent in grid-connected villages across the state, the only time Deba residents experienced a blackout since they started receiving electricity some seven years ago was in October last year.



The blackout was caused by a powerful lightning. It hit the power transmission cables and damaged the inverter of the solar power plant, recalls Phool Devi, in her 40s. The government officials replaced the inverter within two weeks and the village was illuminated again just before Diwali.

The 4 kilowatt solar power plant, which uses photovoltaic cells to tap solar energy, generates 28 units (1 unit=1kWh) of electricity a day. It is sufficient to light all houses and lanes of Deba with CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) for seven hours without fail: from 4 am to 6 am and from 6 pm to 11 pm. Devi says the solar power plant, installed by Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) in 2003, has been a boon to the village residents who had always relied on kerosene lamps and lanterns. “Now that the village has streetlights, I do not fear snakes or wild animals in the night,” Devi says with a grin. She is happy her children now study even after nightfall.

imageDeba is one of the 50 villages and hamlets dotting the dense Barnawapara forest that are benefiting from the solar power plants installed under the Remote Village Electrification Programme of the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). The programme, as the name suggests, aims to electrify villages and hamlets in remote and difficult areas such as forests, hills and deserts of the country, which are not feasible to be linked with the national grid, using renewable energy. Solar power is popular for such electrification due to its abundance and simple plugand- play nature of the technology.

But solar off-grid projects under the programme have been reported to be a failure across the country, with Chhattisgarh being the only exception. With assured illumination to 1,400 remote villages, the nascent state boasts of being home to over one-fifth of the solar-powered villages across the country, reckon MNRE officials.

Tanushree Bhowmik, programme director (energy) of the United Nations Development Programme-India, says renewable off-grid projects tend to fail in most remote villages because of lax monitoring and poor maintenance of installed systems. Though states are responsible for installation and maintenance of off-grid power generation systems, most lack the intent to monitor. There have been reports of systems getting stolen or lying defunct in several states, she adds.

In Kalahandi district of Odisha, for instance, the government installed solar home lighting and street home lighting systems in 40 villages in 2009. A survey by Desi Technology Solutions, a consultancy firm in Bhubaneswar, shows the systems in 30 villages became defunct within a year. According to the December 2010 issue of Akshay Urja, a newsletter of MNRE, remote villages in Jharkhand, Assam and Meghalaya receive 2-4.5 hours of illuminations a day from solar lighting systems. People in these areas are demanding for maintenance of their solar lighting systems as most of the days the systems lie defunct.

Chhattisgarh went the extra mile to ensure that installed solar systems remain functional. It installed microgrids wherever possible and introduced a standardised operation and maintenance system.

Initial hiccups

The task of supplying electricity to remote villages began in Chhattisgarh in 2003. CREDA installed solar home lighting systems in 500 villages. The system is an assembly of solar panels, cables, an inverter, a battery and two 11 Watt CFLs. “Half of the panels got stolen within a year. Some even sold them off or mortgaged them for money,” says S K Shukla, director of CREDA. A survey in 2004 showed that of the 617 solar modules installed in tribal hostels, ashrams and primary health centres, 500 were stolen. This is when CREDA opted for microgrids.

  Chhattisgarh installed micro-grids and introduced a standardised operation and maintenance system  
 
 
“Micro-grids require more investment from the state exchequer because the subsidy by MNRE is limited (90 per cent of the installation cost or Rs 18,000, whichever is maximum). But they prevent theft and require minimal maintenance,” Shukla adds.

As per the estimates of CREDA, a solar module of 37 W costs Rs 14,000. Factor in the 90 per cent subsidy by MNRE and each module costs the state Rs 2,750. Compare this with the cost of setting up a micro-grid (solar photovoltaic power plant and transmission cables) per household, which is approximately Rs 25,000. The state shells out about three times more for a micro-grid than a solar home lighting system.

imageCREDA installed the first micro-grid in 2004 and started electrifying villages in two ways. For big concentrated villages, it installed micro-grids. Of 1,400 solar-powered villages, 500 have microgrids of a total installed capacity of 2.35 MW, providing electricity to more than 35,000 households. Rest of the villages and hamlets, where houses are scattered, were provided with solar home lighting systems. “It is not feasible in scattered villages to invest in wiring for long distances,” says Shukla.

With the penetration of solar offgrid grew concerns for the operation and maintenance of the systems. CREDA envisaged a three-tier system. An operator was chosen from each solar-powered village to clean solar modules every day and repair them if there was wiring glitch. For this, he charges Rs 5 from each house a month. For regular maintenance of batteries and inverters, and for fixing technical problems, CREDA enrolls an operation and maintenance contractor, who appoints a cluster technician for every 10-15 villages. The technician directly receives a payment of Rs 25 per household per month from the state government. This is equivalent to the subsidy that the Chhattisgarh government provides to families below the poverty line in grid-connected areas for availing one unit of electricity a day.

“The technician files a monthly monitoring report for every solar installation. The solar equipments that are not working and the problems associated are also recorded,” says Shashi Dwivedi, an operation and maintenance contractor.

The third tier is managed by CREDA, which monitors all installations through the monthly reports and replaces equipments in case of major breakdowns like the one that happened in Deba. “Not many states have asked for large-scale solar system connections like in Chhattisgarh,” says Moola Ramesh, deputy general manager of Tata BP Solar, a leading solar equipment manufacturer in the country. Even states that install solar systems hardly seek maintenance, he adds.

Uninterrupted scheduled power supply has not only minimised cases of stealing or selling solar panels, it has fuelled the commercial demand for solar systems in the region. “There is not much we can provide other than lighting to each remote house. But people have starting accepting the technology and are buying solar modules and solar water pumps in large numbers,” says Rajiv Gyaani, executive director of CREDA.

Lighting is not enough

Though solar power provides illumination, its limited capacity does not meet the demand of complete electrification. Consider this. Kaya Bara, the village neighbouring Deba in Barnawapara sanctuary, has a 3 kW solar power plant that generates 24 units of electricity a day. Till two years ago it was sufficient to light 45 households in the village for eight hours a day.

Now with three TV sets in the village, the load on the grid has increased and residents get light barely for two hours a day. The operator, Monu, blames those who own TV sets for the load-shedding as a TV set can gobble up the entire 24 units of electricity in just a couple of hours. But there is no let up in their use. Rather, more residents in Kaya Bara are planning to buy TV sets and other electrical equipments like fan and water pumps.

  Remote village electrification programme doesn’t even supply minimum requirement of 1 unit electricity a day  
 
 
Discontent with limited electrification is palpable across solar-powered villages, barring a few like Jabarra in Dhamtari district (see ‘Jabarra denounced national power grid’,). Take Kalaar Baahra, a tribal hamlet in Dhamtari for instance. Each of the 15 houses in it has a solar home lighting system. Last year, the government declared it electrified. Residents still demand link to the grid, which is just half-a-kilometre away. They recently wrote a letter to the district administration apprising it of their demand.

Illumination is not sufficient, says Itwarin Bai, in her 50s. She likes the solar panel on her rooftop, but she is jealous of the villagers half-a-kilometre away who have access to the grid. “Bada bijli matlab bada aamdaani, (grid electricity means more income),” she says.

“Solar-powered water pumps are very expensive. We cannot afford them. If we have access to the grid we can buy the regular water pumps and grow vegetables even in summers like people in the neighbouring village. We can also draw water when the level dips,” Bai explains. The remote village electrification programme does not ensure adequate supply to meet the demand of remote villages, admits Kapil Mohan, former in-charge of rural electrification programme in the Ministry of Power.

Under the programme, a 37 W solar system is provided to a family, which does not even meet the minimum electricity requirement of 1 unit a day mentioned in the Electricity Act. “Electricity does not mean just illumination. It is the most flexible form of energy and should be provided to all according to minimum standards,” Mohan says.

hari Narayn gupta‘People feel solar power is their electricity’

The Solar Shop, a three-floor distributor’s outlet of Tata BP Solar in Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh, is the biggest supplier of solar equipment in the state. Proprietor of the shop Hari Narayan Gupta talks to Ruhi Kandhari about the growing demand for solar equipment in the state and the future of solar power

What makes solar equipment popular in Chhattisgarh?

People here have become aware of the benefits of solar technology following the state’s initiative to electrify remote villages using solar power. When people see solar lighting systems working in these villages, they want to buy them. Those who do not get sufficient electricity but have money also prefer investing in solar power. Subsidies by the Union ministry of new and renewable energy make the equipment affordable.

Since 2009, when the Centre started providing subsidies on solar equipment under its rooftop scheme, we have installed about 150 solar panels across the state. Sixty are in Ambikapur alone, even though the town is connected to the grid and does not face much power outages. A combination of grid and solar power is economical for most households here. They use the grid power for running water pumps and air conditioners, while depending on solar for lighting.

Which equipment is in demand the most?

Of all solar equipment, solar modules are in high demand even though there is no subsidy on them. Government gives subsidies only on complete packages like the solar home lighting system (an assembly solar panels, batteries, inverters and lights). People use the modules to charge their tractor batteries and then run TVs, fans or other electronic gadgets at night or at their whim. This comes cheap.

Do people use solar equipment for commercial purpose?

I have not seen anyone doing so because large-scale installations require big investment.

Do you ensure operation and maintenance?

Yes, we do. The service is free for installations in remote villages for which we have received the annual maintenance contract from the state government. But for individual customers, we offer a two-year warranty and charge for subsequent repair and maintenance services. People usually bring their equipment to our repair shops in case of a technical problem. In case of a big installation, our technicians visit the spot.

What is the status of commercial sale of solar equipment in the country?

I have a network of 30 sub-dealers in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. Tata BP Solar has the largest customer base in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where demand for solar equipment is high because of poor grid supply. Sales have recently gone up in Bihar following the introduction of a scheme where panchayats can buy solar streetlights. Uttar Pradesh tops in sales because of micro finance offered by Aryavrata Grameen Bank (regional rural bank).

The demand is no doubt growing in Chhattisgarh. My sales have increased almost five times in the past seven years—from Rs 15-20 lakh in 2004 to Rs 4 crore this year. But sales would further go up if the state introduces micro-finance for solar equipment. People shell out Rs 150 a month for using a kerosene lamp. They can happily pay Rs 200 to Rs 250 a month to the bank to own a solar home lighting system.

How do you see the future of solar energy? I believe everyone would use solar energy in some form or the other in a decade. The cost of solar equipment has halved in the past five years and is further coming down with each passing year. People have already started looking at solar power for energy security at the household level. They feel it is their electricity. Even if there is a total blackout in the city, solar power will function.


Photo Gallery: Flicker of solar light in Chhattisgarh

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