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Decentralized Power Generation: The Experience of One NGO

By ananthu at December 3, 2002 12:42 AM

Navadarshanam (“New Vision”) is a small Charitable Trust that operates from the Ganganahally hamlet of Gumalapuram village, on the TN-Karnataka border, 45 km from Bangalore. Its primary focus is investigation of alternatives to the modern way of living and thinking, along the lines suggested by Mahatma Gandhi in his Hind Swaraj and other writings. In particular, the Trust has concentrated on alternative technologies. Its efforts in solar energy and alternative cooking fuels may be of relevance to those who are participating in this seminar.

It is best to clarify - right at the outset itself - that, unlike the typical NGO, Navadarshanam’s primary focus is NOT raising the ‘standard of living’ of the poor villagers. The founders of Navadarshanam, all of them professionals of long standing, came to the conclusion – after decades of investigation into the causes of our social and individual problems - that the poor are deprived of material goods because those who get educated are cornering an unfair share of the earth’s non-renewable resources. Therefore, our primary focus is to change our own way of life, whereby we walk more softly on mother earth. This has involved re-defining ‘standard of living’ for ourselves – a recognition that clean air, pure water, healthy food habits and sharing nature’s bounties with others give us a far higher ‘standard of living’ than high-rise, air-conditioned buildings, colas, pizzas, five-star hotels, beauty parlours and other norms associated with the modern way of living.

Navadarshanam Trust has worked in five areas of alternative technologies – eco-restoration of degraded land, natural/organic farming, health foods, eco-friendly housing and alternative energy. Out of these, I am choosing two items – solar energy and cooking fuels – in which our experience may be of relevance to participants of this seminar.

SOLAR ENERGY

When Navadarshanam was started in 1990, we decided not to take a connection from the grid for the following three reasons:

(i) all electricity generated these days in the various grid systems are based on processes which are ecologically damaging.
(ii) Electricity so generated is distributed through a system that is highly centralized, leaving the user at the mercy of those who control the system.
(iii) The norms developed for giving connections, and for subsidies, generates enormous scope for corruption, especially in the rural areas.

For the first five years, we managed without any electricity, making do with lanterns and candles, going to bed soon after sunset, getting up real early. In 1995, prompted partly by the bitter experience of a near-death due to a cobra bite in a dark corner of one room (we city-dwellers have a lot to learn about living in harmony with nature!), we investigated various options of decentralized, user-controlled methods of generating electricity. We finally went in for solar panels: the other option, wind-turbine, was discarded because of a massive mechanical failure that had occurred in the wind-turbine at the nearby Ashram run by the Bihar School of Yoga (later, the cause of this failure was located, and this turbine is now functioning well – in retrospect, we wish we had not abandoned that option so easily, for wind energy does seem to have ecological advantages over solar energy.)

We received valuable advice regarding solar energy from a friend in Auroville. Based upon that, we requested the Center for Scientific Research at Auroville to install a Solar PV system consisting of 28 Tata BP modules, each of 38 Wp strength, accompanied by a Grundfoss submersible pump, and also 14 9W/11W CFL lamps with built-in inverters, along with an Amco battery. This system enabled us to pump water from our borewell, and provided plenty of lighting for the four dwelling units we then had. Our Trustee, Om Bagaria, later modified the circuitry with assistance from a young engineer hailing from the North East, named Gautam, in such a way that its efficiency and capacity improved considerably.

We were so impressed with the performance of this system that when the number of dwelling units increased to 7, we went in for one more system. This time, influenced by the dedication of our dear friend Mr.Varadarajan (who, alas, has just recently passed away) to the cause of solar power, we opted for the system that he was providing – a set of Solarex PV modules ( 20 modules of the MST-42 type ) accompanied by a floating pump made by Hydrasol (P) Ltd. Om Bagaria then designed a circuitry for charging an array of six batteries using these panels whenever water was not being pumped.

Let me now dwell on the performance and economic aspects of our experience with these two systems.

Performance

We are very pleasantly surprised as to how well these two systems are meeting our needs. Water pumping from both the bore and open wells has been going on quite smoothly over all these years. The pumps had to be repaired only once each – a major lightning strike of unusual magnitude was the cause the first time. Other than that, all we have had to do is routine maintenance, which we do regularly and meticulously – which is perhaps why our experience with solar power has been better than that of others who have tried out this route.

These two systems provide all the water and electricity needs of our small community, which encompasses an area of 115 acres and whose population varies from a minimum of 10 to a maximum of 50, depending on whether and which programs are being conducted. We are very particular about making sure that only approved gadgets in line with our alternative style of living are used – no TVs, no frig, but we do have machines for stone-grinding wheat into atta, electric drills for repairs to our infrastructure, a computer etc. Even if we had to increase our power requirements somewhat, we are confident our solar panels can provide us with the electricity needed, except maybe for a few days during Nov-Dec., when there is continuous cloud cover due to depressions in the Bay of Bengal. On such occasions, we simply reduce our power usage to match the electricity generated.

Economics

We paid Rs.70,000 to the Centre for Scientific Research for the first system, and Rs.65,000 to Nagarajuna Finance for the second one. If we had gone in for a connection from the grid to meet our needs (including pumping), we would have ended up shelling out much more, and the end result would not have been as satisfactory.

But I know that the amount we paid is not the ‘actual cost’ of the system. There are supposed to be ‘subsidies’ involved. During my student days, I was supposed to be good at understanding economics, especially engineering economics, but I must admit that despite my best efforts to understand how this subsidy system for solar panels in our country operates, I have not been able to fathom it. All I know is that the end user is at the mercy of a string of agencies involved in the process. To illustrate my point, let me tell you details of the second system for which we paid Rs.65,000/-.

During our discussions with Mr.Varadarajan and his company, Polyene Industries, we were told that a farmer needs to pay only Rs.25,000/- for the system, but has to be sponsored by an NGO, which has to give another Rs.40,000/-. These payments, we were told, have to be made to Nagarajuna Finance, one of the agencies ‘approved’ by DNES, and that Nagarajuna Finance would ‘own’ the system even though its installation, use and maintenance would be our headache. We were also told that the finance company would repay the second component, Rs.40,000, in ten equal yearly instalments along with interest. These arrangements, we were told, have to be made on account of the complicated subsidy system that has evolved, which include soft loans at low interest, as well depreciation tax benefits. As we have no ‘sponsoring NGO’, we decided to make both components of the payments ourselves. It is now four years since these payments were made, but despite several reminders and requests, Nagarjuna Finance has not made us a single repayment, not even responded to any of our queries. It has been a most frustrating and bewildering experience to deal with an agency that ‘owns’ the system, but is just not interested in its obligations, only in the profits they made from the subsidy benefits available.

To those who make policies on these matters, I would therefore like to pose the following questions:

(i) If subsidies are being given, why are they not given directly to the end user? Why involve agencies such as finance companies which have no commitment to promoting solar energy, but take up the task only to corner the subsidies and depreciation benefits? Our Trustee, Om Bagaria, raised this issue with DNES, who agreed with Om’s point of view and promised to do something in this matter, and also expressed a great desire to see solar PV modules installed in Om’s native North East region, with subsidy benefits going directly to the end user .Our young friend Gautam who helped us design the circuitries for our installation has now waited in the North East (Tezpur) with great enthusiasm and expectation for over two years in the hope that something positive will come out of this initiative, and he now realizes that he has waited in vain.
(ii) If systems such as the one provided by Polyene can be made available to farmers at Rs.25,000/-, why not promote these in a big way on an all-India basis as the answer to the stress that irrigation pumps are causing on power availability in the country? Every year, in almost every part of the country, there is a power crisis wherein the government has to choose between satisfying the needs of farmers who have irrigation pumpsets and the urban population crying out against the oppressive power cuts. Why not find a way by which farmers have access to a decentralized source of power, and are independent of the grid?

Personally, I would prefer that solar energy is not propped up by subsidies of any kind, but stands on its own feet. However, this is a very complicated question. If we look at the matter very carefully, I think we will discover that anything and everything provided in the modern economy is subsidized in an invisible way. One may think computers are not subsidized, but what about the massive R&D funding that was made available to this sector in the 1960s and 1970s? And what about the so-called defence expenditure (running into trillions) incurred by USA and USSR to design and launch satellites, without which today’s internet systems would not be possible? One may think fertilizers and pesticides are not subsidized, but what about the research efforts of the military during the second world war to develop poison gases, efforts that were re-directed to the development of pesticides after the war was over? And what about the massive infrastructure developed by the oil industry without which no chemical fertilizers are possible? So, the fact of the matter is that a select band of people, mostly in the military-industrial complex, decide what areas of scientific research R&D funds should be spent on, and products that eventually get developed using the benefits of this research become available in the market – at a ‘market price’ that hides the fact that enormous subsidies have already been put in.

Therefore, the ‘market price’ of solar energy is a function of what the powers-that-be decide its importance should be. During President Carter’s regime, a tilt in this direction was discernible, but after that it is a neglected area – hence it is still uneconomical, except when ‘subsidized’. But here, I would like to pose a question to policy makers in Delhi. As India is a specially gifted country from the solar point of view (how many other countries have such an abundance of sunlight throughout the year?), should we not be taking an independent and conscious decision to concentrate R&D funds in this area? We may not be a super-power, we may not be economically a very strong nation, but we certainly have an abundance of scientific talent, among the best in the world. Why should we follow the lead of the USA in matters relating to selection of our area of R&D, getting enthusiastic about solar energy when Carter becomes the President there, then giving it up once Reagan takes over? Solar energy is one area where, if we concentrate R&D funds, we may be able to give the lead to the entire world, apart from benefiting our rural population in a big way.

COOKING FUEL ALTERNATIVES

As has happened in our urban centers, in our rural areas, too, LPG is making inroads as a cooking fuel. This is most unfortunate, for LPG usage is ecologically damaging, the cylinders pose a grave safety threat especially in thatched-roof homes, and if there is a shortage of LPG at some point in time the rural users will suffer utmost because the oil companies will prefer to satisfy the needs of the urban user first.

Wood has been the traditional fuel in most rural areas, but villagers are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain it. This is on account of the vanishing tree cover and conversion of what used to be common lands into government-owned ‘puram-pok’ units. The result is that villagers are getting wood from reserved forests illegally, often by bribing forest officials. This process is bad both for the ecology and for our social structure.

Because of the above two factors, we at Navadarshanam decided to investigate possible cooking fuel alternatives. We first tried out solar cookers. The initial models we got in 1990-91 were not satisfactory, but our later effort with parabolic cookers using polished aluminum foils proved much more successful – the temperature at the focus of the parabola touches 360 degrees centigrade when the sun is at its peak. However, because the danger of intervention of clouds is always present, this method of cooking proved good but unreliable.

Charcoal is another alternative we have tried. There is an old gentleman in Calcutta, a Mr.Mullick, who used to make the “Ik-Mik” cooker, which were very popular in the 40s and 50s. We contacted him, and he was delighted to re-make these for us. We find that these Mullick cookers are very economical in cooking rice and dal, or anything that can be steam-cooked. Charcoal availability is a problem these days, but we overcame this problem by making a simple arrangement for slow combustion of dead wood to obtain good quality charcoal at practically no cost.

The real breakthrough in our search for alternatives to LPG came when, six months back, we designed and installed a gobar gas plant. We had to wait this long to try the gobar gas route because, in order to re-generate our barren land into a mini-forest, we did not want any grazing, and hence did not keep cows. Now that the land has regenerated somewhat, we have got 14 cows, whose dung is sufficient to charge the 3 Cu.M. gobar gas plant of the Deenabandhu (dome-type) model we have erected.

Our plant generates enough methane-rich fuel (very blue in colour) to enable 40 to 50 meals to be cooked daily. What has amazed us is the value of the by-product it generates: the spent slurry when mixed with bio-mass and left to dry for 2-3 months results in excellent manure, with very high nitrogen and phosphorous content, and with very little extraneous matter.

We spent Rs.13,000/- on making the bio-gas plant, inclusive of the special cooking range we purchased for lighting bio-methane. We have been told that we will get Rs.2,300/- as subsidy from the government, reducing the total cost to Rs.10,700/-. We are saving about Rs.400 a month on cooking fuel – that works out to be the cost of equivalent LPG if we did not have the bio-gas. But even more significant is the saving on compost – we do not have final figures as yet, but our estimate based on what we have seen so far is that we will get about a ton of superior compost every month, and a ton of such compost costs at least Rs.1,000/-. Thus, we are saving Rs.1,400/- a month from this biogas plant, meaning that within an year the investment is fully recovered.

If bio-gas plants are indeed such an economically attractive option, why are more people not going for it? I can think of the following reasons for it:

1. Like in the case of solar power, there is a general feeling that ‘it does not work’. In both cases, this is the result of shoddy installation and maintenance of the ‘model’ systems.
2. A single village family generally does not need all the fuel generated in a 3 Cu.M. or even a 2 Cu.M. plant, and may not have the cows or other animals needed to keep the plant going. Therefore, in most cases, a co-operative effort may be needed, and right now there is no mechanism or incentive for instituting such a co-operative effort.
3. Most important, the value of organic compost is being lost sight of in our rural areas. When we tell our neighbouring villagers about the advantages of organic farming, they turn around and tell us, ‘ but, sahib, you (meaning the educated classes in general) are the ones who taught us to discard organic farming and go in for government gobar (the local, and interesting, term for chemical fertilizers)’.

But if we look at the macro picture, the pendulum is indeed swinging. In those countries where chemical fertilizers were first developed, and from whom we learnt modern methods of agriculture, there is a growing realization that what they have done is extremely damaging to the earth’s ecology, to their farmland’s long-term productivity, and, most important, to human health. There is a burgeoning movement in favour of organic farming. Organic produce, ranging from vegetables to fruits to tea, is in great demand, and people are willing to pay a considerable premium to get it.

This presents our policy-makers in Delhi with a great opportunity. Why not install large-size bio-gas plants of the Deenabandhu type in every village in the country, and give free cooking gas to every household that supplies the dung input for it? This will reduce the deforestation taking place these days because of the villagers’ propensity to cut wood for fuel, it will give the poor access to a cheap and good source of fuel, and in the bargain we will be generating enormous quantities of organic compost whose world-wide demand is increasing day by day – a great potential for export earnings! India is uniquely poised to take advantage of this opportunity, for no other country has such a vast population of cattle, and so many villages where organic manure can be produced so easily.
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The author (T.S. Ananthu) is the Honorary Secretary of the Navadarshanam Trust. He has a B.Tech. in Electrical Engg. from IITMadras, and an M.S. in Engineering Economic Systems from Stanford University, Calif., followed by 11 years’ experience in the field of systems engineering in USA and India, after which he switched over and dedicated his life to the investigation of Gandhian Alternatives. His colleague and co-Trustee Om Bagaria who has been responsible for the technology alternatives work at Navadarshanam has a B.Tech. in Mechanical Engg. from IITKharagpur followed by 35 years’ R&D experience in engineering design.

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