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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lighting up with renewables

There is a scramble for energy in India, which has had a negative energy balance since the 1980s. Consider these numbers: India accounted for 3.5% of the world commercial energy demand in 2003. The Planning Commission projects that dependence on energy imports could double to 53% of commercial energy consumption in 2031-32 from about 25% in 2003-04. The demand for electricity is estimated to grow at the rate of 7% per year in India for the coming decade. Note that 84 million households lacked access to electricity in 2000, 57% in rural areas. Plus, 49% of all households, mostly women and children, have to travel to get their drinking water. Typically, women living in remote rural areas spend an average of three hours just collecting water; almost 50 million women days are lost each year in the process.
In 2004, Thalingi exemplified these statistics. It was one of the 100,000 un-electrified villages in India. There was no water supply in the village. Women and children spent an average of four hours getting water from the nearby river. Needless to say, there were no sanitation facilities. Government officials rarely visited the village. Situated in the Anamalai Tiger Sanctuary, on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Thalingi is a 10 km trek uphill from the Udumalpet-Munnar Main Road. Accessing the village is no mean task; apart from the obvious dangers associated with walking inside a wildlife sanctuary, one has to cross two rivers by horse or foot. In the monsoons, the village is cut off.
Fast forward to 2011. Thalingi, with a mix of renewable energy (RE) technology and energy efficient (EE) devices, is now a model clean-energy village. The story is one of sheer determination of both the villagers and a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with the villagers. Non-conventional Energy for Rural Development (NERD), an NGO, motivated the community to secure its energy profile since grid electrification seemed a distant dream. Nine self help groups (SHGs) were formed, of which seven were women SHGs and two were youth SHGs. NERD collected funds for two biogas plants. A donor agency contributed funds for two more biogas plants. Biogas is produced by anaerobic digestion of organic matter, like manure, municipal waste, biomass etc. The plant converts the energy contained in the gas into electricity and heat. The SHGs were trained rigorously in the construction, maintenance and running of the plants. With inputs from the Agriculture University, Coimbatore, the Thalingi plants in 2008 were the first 100% biogas plants, generating power from cattle dung only (prior to that, most biogas plants used 80% gas and 20% diesel).
The biogas generator now not only provides electricity to all the 104 households of the village, it also lights up 28 street lights bought using the savings of the SHGs. Moreover, biogas cooking has replaced cooking with kerosene, which was an expensive option for the tribal BPL villagers of Thalingi. Colour TV sets, which had been given to all the 104 households by the government—ironically, when there was no access to electricity—are run now. The slurry from the plants is used as organic manure, which has improved the quality and quantity of produce manifold and has eliminated weed growth. The community, previously shy of moving out of the village, has enhanced negotiating capabilities. Trips to the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TNEDA) have yielded eight solar street lights and a solar pumping system to pump water into the village from the river. With an overhead tank of with a capacity of 50,000 litres, water is now supplied to the village tap, saving a minimum of three hours from the working days of the women. The solar pumping system is maintained by the youth SHGs. NERD, with a donor agency, has also installed smokeless chullas in all the households of Thalingi. Before installation, 200 awareness camps were held to motivate the community, followed by 80 trainings on the operation and maintenance of smokeless chullas and two workshops for experience-sharing.
Each family earns between R14,000-15,000 per annum, of which it contributes R10 per month to the SHG federation for the maintenance of the renewable energy/energy efficient devices. A villager is paid R800 per month from this fund for maintaining the biogas generator. Further, the SHG also rents out a tractor, which was given by the district authorities, to the nearby villages and makes an additional R5,000-8000 per year. Each SHG member (on an average there are 12 women/youth in one SHG) saves R20-30 every month, depending on the income, with their SHG which serves as a revolving fund for lending out money to the members. Loans are often taken to start income-generating activities. Thus, access to electricity, a steady supply of water, better sanitation facilities, and a diversification of incomes has addressed the multidimensional deprivation previously faced by the community.
In the 11th Plan (2007-2012), the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy proposed to spend R2,250 crore for rural applications of renewable energy and targeted 9,000 remote villages/hamlets for lighting with a budget of R650 crore. However, the compelling reality is that RE/EE projects fail because of a target-oriented approach of the government. Without suitably motivating the community to adopt new technology and take ownership for it, coupled with a lack of beginner and maintenance information, RE/EE systems run for a while and then lie defunct. A lack of information about the benefits of these technologies further translates into an unwillingness of BPL families to make monetary contributions for the upkeep of the systems. Also, a lack of incentives to banking and co-operatives for including biogas and solar financing in their portfolios has, in many cases, prevented motivated communities from realising small-scale RE/EE projects to fruition.
The acknowledged relationship between energy access and economic development has spurred the government to develop laudable goals for increasing energy access. The challenges are daunting. However, while stakeholders are engaged in dialectics, Thalingi has secured itself energy-wise.

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