Patrenahalli is an inconspicuous village on the Bengaluru-Pune highway, which is cordoned off by barricades on both sides of the NH 48. Most of the inhabitants belong to the former nomadic community of the Lambani. 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 coconut yarn machine in their small front yard. The shipyard is chocolaty with bundles of rope of different sizes and shapes. A small rectangular device on top of the machine is the only sign that the machine is solar powered.
Kumar disconnects the device from the machine to demonstrate how ropes used to be twisted manually. Suddenly, clinking noises echo through a courtyard that had been so quiet that you could hear the bulbuls chirping on the moringa tree. In the past, he explains, a person behind the machine should have turned a wheel; today, the small solar-powered motor does the job. Work that would require at least 10 hours of hard work from at least three people is now done in just over half the time by two people.
“We had to hire workers and it would take at least a day or two more to produce as much as we are doing now. The cost of paying the workers would also reduce our bottom line, ”says Kumar. He adds, “With the solar powered machine, we can put more packages together every day, my son and daughter can take breaks to take their online classes on the phone, and I don't have to spin the bike day and night to see them To keep the machine running. “
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The small 75 watt solar panel from Solar Light Pvt. Ltd (Selco), the 60 mAh battery and the custom motor, all of which cost ₹17,000 in total, Kumar's family has brought the benefits of decentralized renewable energies (DRE) – energy that is generated near the point of consumption and not fed into an industrial plant or via the national power grid – directly to Kumar's family.
In addition to companies such as Sustaintech, SNL Energy Solutions and Envo Renewable Energy Services, Selco, headquartered in Bengaluru – one of the oldest in the industry – specializes in decentralized solar-powered solutions. With more than 45 offices in Karnataka and some other parts of India, it has been helping build solar power solutions of various shapes and sizes for the past 25 years, installing everything from lightbulbs in tribal villages in the Western Ghats to solar powered gas pumps that provide constant power throughout the day require.
As governments look at the bigger picture of “green change” in the energy sector and set a target of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, it is companies like Selco trying to solve the inconsistent power supply problems that small business owners and businesses in rural and suburban areas are facing India deal daily.
L. Kumar and his wife spin coconut yarn into ropes using a solar-powered device.
(to him Arasu)
Customers can turn to a company with their requirements; the companies also visit villages and towns. They cover a wide range of requirements, be it a roti-rolling machine, a food processing plant or a coconut twine machine. The costs depend on needs and size. They also work with microfinance firms and banks to broker loans for clients. All DRE-operated devices have a two-year guarantee. A solar panel should have a lifespan of 20-25 years and the battery around 10 years.
Harish Hande, Magsaysay Award Winner and a Founder of Selco India, says, “Now the fuel source is decentralized, the sun is decentralized so why not use it to design a system in a similar way? It's a matter of changing the thinking process, changing the belief that the grid is king, and becoming more aware. “
What companies and their customers are looking for is an on-demand approach that drives innovation and guidelines that can help scale bespoke solutions. Because experts agree that DRE can play a huge role in improving life and livelihoods.
“One of the problems in the social sector is that solutions are inherently bespoke, so scaling can be challenging. Social enterprises can create knowledge, but it is up to the government and policy makers to increase the scale of the impact, ”says Prof. Sourav Mukherji of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
Prof. Mukherji, who was a member of advisory groups at Selco and included the work of DRE companies in his courses, knows the challenges they face locally and on a political level. “In view of the climate crisis, we have to concentrate on large RE projects. There is no doubt about it. I think the tragedy is that this focus is sometimes at the expense of smaller and more decentralized RE. I think ideally there should be space and incentives for both sectors to move forward in India. “
This is emphasized by Rachita Misra, Deputy Director of the Selco Foundation. “Unfortunately, the power grid is not reliable in many parts of India. And where it is reliable, it slowly becomes expensive for many. This has a disproportionate effect on life and livelihoods in the country. Power outages can cause great business damage. If you can't deliver the goods on time or a customer comes in and I don't have electricity, it goes to the next one and that is a customer who is lost forever. “
Companies try to address these issues as best they can. “In terms of RE, the moment you change the idea to focus on the end user, the way you innovate changes,” says Misra. “One can imagine decoupling growth from energy. As long as large parts of the population do not have access to a central energy supply, DRE can make a major contribution to improving life and livelihoods. “
Take the case of D. Nagabhushan, 47, a disabled desktop publishing and photocopying kiosk owner in the railroad town of Davangere in central Karnataka. Nagabhushan was bedridden for many years because of abnormal spine growth. The Association of People with Disability (APD), a Bengaluru-based organization, helped him regain mobility and 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 lamps, all of which are powered by a small solar panel on the kiosk.
“The operation with solar power has increased my profit by at least ₹200-400 daily. Although the pandemic and lockdown have had an impact on business, things are getting better now and I hope to add a few more computers to my business soon to surf the web and fill out online forms when I can, “says Nagabhushan. “A few years ago, I couldn't have imagined that I could make a living for someone in my condition. So it's really incredible for me to be able to do this now, ”he adds.
There are thousands of users like him.
“We have a wonderful country in terms of decentralization. We have institutions such as cooperatives and self-help groups so that this new development model can actually be designed in a decentralized manner, ”says Misra. She adds, “DRE is not the only way to achieve this, but we believe that DRE enables us to look at innovation on demand. This means that we do not ensure that a person or a company uses more energy so that the grid is feasible, but rather to optimize the energy supply as best as possible so that it is affordable for everyone. “
Back in Davangere, it is late evening and Nagabhushan is preparing to end the day. He is happy that business is up and running again. “The lockdown was really tough, but my family and I kind of made it. The few hundred more rupees that I get from using solar energy instead of paying for a connection make a big difference for us. “
He adds, “When everything goes back to normal, my dream is to run everything in the store on solar. I would also like to get some additional systems and help other disabled people start similar businesses in Davangere if I can, this is my long term plan. So my business can grow and they can live well too. “
Sibi Arasu is a Bengaluru based journalist and tweeted @ sibi123. This story was supported by an Earth Journalism Network reporting grant from Internews.
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