30 year old Bashonti, resident of Noorgunj, a tiny village in the rural recesses of Bangladesh, probably has one of the greenest jobs in the world. She makes a living out of trapping and selling solar power.
She knows little about the ongoing global debate on sustainable development and will probably stare blankly if someone tells her that governments across the planet are investing billions and billions of dollars to promote renewable energy production. But she will confidently rattle off the details of the 120 watt solar panel (including a battery!) installed at home, and how she earns more than 5000 takas every month assembling cooking stoves and mobile chargers that are powered by the sun.
Once famous for its juicy jackfruits, Noorgunj, is now known in the region for its solar panel-dotted rooftops and solar entrepreneurs who are using sunlight as their core capital.
Off-grid but on-track
Noorgunj in fact, symbolizes a very interesting trend that is emerging on the solar front.Even as researchers, scientists, politicians, international negotiators weigh the pros and cons of alternative energy sources and discuss their viability and costs, people living in remote rural zones with low income levels are actually testing them on the ground. They do so not only to burn light bulbs but even to eke out alternative livelihoods. Like Bashonti, the poorest population across the globe from the coasts of India and Bangladesh to the continent of Africa are now putting solar energy to practical use .
Beaming in Bangladesh
Over 80 per cent of the populations here are reportedly left out of the network of the national grid. Thus about 100 million people living mainly in the rural areas are doomed in the dark as the grid caters to urban centres and only those villages that are close to highways or have large farms with irrigation pumps. But now the scenario appears to be changing.
The renewable source of energy from sun, is beginning to empower the villagers. Solar panels have been made available to 40,000 villages on easy installments by, Grameen Shakti, a sister nongovernmental organization of the Grameen Bank which is renowned for its succesful micro credit schemes in rural Bangladesh.
The total installed solar capacity in the country is as high as 11 Mega Watt. Enough energy to light up more than one lakh bulbs or three lakh CFLs or 20 lakh LEDs.
The Sunny Sunderbans
It is a biosphere reserve with the most beautiful and also the world’s largest delta. It is located where three great rivers, Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna, confluence with the sea. Naturally, in such a network of water creeks, 70 per cent of the area is under brackish water. This makes it impossible for any electricity lines to be laid and then maintained. So the State Ministry of Renewable Energy decided to use sun power to electrify the Sunderbans instead.
With an average 250 sunny days and the usual 35-40 degrees Celsius temperature in summers, it wasn’t a tough task. The ministry installed 15 Stand-Alone type solar power plants. and distributed around 80,000 photovoltaic solar home lighting systems. Today India’s largest cluster of solar power system is in the Sunderban islands.
Along with the tigers, solar panels, too, are being listed as casualties of the Aila.
Solar power in Africa is not all about the mega ambitious projects of using Sahara to electrify Europe. It is about the rural people there benefitting from a resource they have in bundance.
Five medical centres in rural Mulindi, Rusumo, Rukira, Nyarabuye and Kirehe in Rwanda no longer shut shop once the sun sets. Earlier, the medics here had to turn away patients because they could not examine them in the dark.
Now they can treat patients even at night. The solar energy powers their laboratories, X-ray machines, sterlisation devices, refrigerators, computers, and lighting. And this was just one of the efforts by Solar Electric Light Funds (SELF), an NGO operating in the region.
The whole continent enjoys an average of 325 days per year of bright sunlight, amounting roughly to almost 2000 klio watt hour per square metre.
Light on the economy
Now, isn’t there a contradiction somewhere? Hasn’t the most formidable barrier to solar energy been the expense associated with it? Even now, the governments are reeling under the estimated costs for going solar.
So how can it be viable to popularize this form of energy among the rural poor...be it in Bangladesh, India or Africa?.
The fact is, setting up solar panels and lighting systems of limited capacities in remote, far flung villages can actually work out to be more economical and effective than building up the infrastructure required to connect them to the national grid. As the cases mentioned above offer evidence.
In fact, solar energy is, in places, powering more than just light bulbs. It is being used to fuel cooking stoves, lamps, mobile chargers and a host of other accessories. But most interestingly, when supported by a sound business model, it is emerging as a very lucrative source of livelihood.
Bashonti and her neighbours who work for Grameen Shakti in Noorgunj, will swear by this. Grameen Shakti is an offshoot of Grameen Bank, an organisation renowned for its work in rural Bangladesh, offering loans and credits to people at rates which even the poorest are able to repay.
Bashonti was introduced to the solar phenomenon at the Grameen Technology Centre, set up by Grameen Shakti to train
rural women on renewable energy technologies. Now she has set up her own business at home, assembling solar accessories and selling these to Grameen Shakti. She took a loan from the organisation to buy her assets—a solar panel along with a battery.
She also earns a sizeable sum helping her neighbours to set up solar home systems and later providing them repair and maintenance ervices too! So her monthly loan (which was given to her without service charges or any other additional costs) repayment has ceased to be a burden. Bashonti is now thinking of employing a few women like herself to help her cope with the expanding business.
To understand Bashonti and her business better, we need to first figure out the basic solar technology! Here’s a quick guide...
SHOULD INDIA FOCUS ON THE SUN?
India faces an uphill challenge of multiplying its generation capacity nearly 5 times, to nearly 800,000 MW by 2031-32 from its present value of slightly less than 160,000 MW, in order to sustain India’s economic growth rate of 8 percent. Before we answer how it would do it lets look at the scenario today.
Sheikh Petrodollah from Saudi Arabia says:
Oil’s not well in the saga of solar power. I believe there is some universal law of inverse proportions at work between non renewable and renewable energy sources. The world thought of solar power first time only when I and my fellow OPEC countries cut off the oil supply to the world in 1973. Solar Photovoltaics were produced so much so that their price fell from US $ 100 per watt to US $ 7 per watt.
This rung alarm bells for my oil wells. Who would purchase petrol from me if Sun would provide for the energy needs?? I must confess, that in my business, Sun was the toughest competitor I ever had. But we reduced prices of our oil sooooooo much that the even the free sun’s energy seemed expensive to people. Now the world is back to the old oiled good ways and I am the happiest! Now excuse me friends, I wrap up my column here because I have to get ready for a meeting. Japan’s fifth largest oil firm, Shell Showa is coming here for setting up a pilot solar power unit. You surprised? C’mon, after all I have to continue business even after oil gets over so that I can retire into my home in Masdar city!
India’s potential in solar energy is enormous. A square piece of land, 50 km on each side, in the Thar Desert, can cover
Average 301 Clear Sunny days
= 2,300–3,200 hours of sunshine every year.
= 5,000 trillion Kilo Watt hour per year
= 4 - 7 Kilo Watt hour per meter square daily average.
Which is definitely not equal to government’s initiative to set upto 50 Mega Watt solar power plant in the eleventh five year plan period 2007-12
Saluting the solar champions
Currently, Bashonti and her counterparts in India and elsewhere appear to be the front runners on the sun route.
They are actually translating sunshine into better incomes, healthier life, and lesser carbon emissions. Irreverant to the scientific researches, economic calculations and political debates, they brew a rayvolution at the grass roots.
They have chosen the sun over the oil. What do you?