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Electric power

Rural self-sufficiency

by Sandip Chattopadhyay
India needs reform in the energy sector, because economic growth is placing ever more stress on an overtaxed grid. Moreover, climate change means that there is a need to look beyond fossil fuels. A local initiative in Tamil Nadu proves that it makes sense to make use of renewable sources. [ By Sandip Chattopadhyay ]

To judge by recent trends, India will need to more than triple its power-generating capacity by the year 2030 – from the current 130,000 MW to 400,000 MW. Tripling the energy output in two decades is a daunting task by any account. And the actual need could be even greater, as the forecast assumes that energy-conservation plans will succeed and that energy-efficient equipment will be widely applied. More importantly, India’s dependence on fossil fuels is unsustainable, both at the national political level and the global environmental level.

Coal remains the number one source of energy in India, but the domestic resources are dwindling. Moreover, the environmental dangers of coal exploitation are well established, and Indian power plants tend to use outdated equipment and are thus particularly harmful. To reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – which is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change – India will have to outgrow its dependence on coal.

Oil and natural gas are the second and third most important sources of energy in India. Oil alone accounts for a third of India’s total energy production, and the use of natural gas is sharply on the rise. India does not possess rich domestic oil and natural gas resources. Imports are expensive. Moreover, they imply dependence on foreign countries.

To power economic growth, therefore, India will need new approaches. In the long run, sustainable energy independence will only be possible thanks to renewable sources like the sun, the wind and biofuels.

Solar power should become a cornerstone of reform. For any tropical country, it makes sense to develop solar energy systems both for large-scale application in cities and for small, decentralised rural requirements. Harnessing the wind and biomass will also be crucial.

One virtue of solar and wind energy is their amenability to decentralised rural application. Odanthurai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, offers proof of the potential. This community of almost a dozen villages has become a must-see for Indian officials interested in renewable energy. In the span of six months, 2,000 panchayat chairpersons visited it. Panchayats are the elected local-government councils of villages and small towns.

Odanthurai owes the recent surge in visitors to its imaginative, environmentally conscious approach to reducing its dependence on energy supplied by Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), a body of the state government. The local panchayat has a diversified energy portfolio, it owns 65 solar-powered streetlights, a biomass gasifier and a 350-KW wind farm.

The TNEB has not proved to be a reliable provider. On average, Odanthrai suffers three hours of blackout every day. Thanks to the local facilities, however, Odanthurai’s 6,500 people nonetheless know that their street lights and electric drinking-water pumps will keep operating. That is even the case in the hamlets of Vinobhaji Nagar and Kalarpudur.

Odanthurai’s panchayat only uses around 50 % of the electric power generated by the windmills and sells the rest to the TNEB. Last year, that deal boosted the local panchayat’s budget by the equivalent of $ 38,000.

As R. Shanmugam, who was the panchayat president from 1996 to 2006, points out, Odanthurai used to spend 60 % of its public budget on power. To establish the wind farm, the panchayat took out a loan worth $ 230,000, which is to be repaid in seven years. Once the loan is repaid, the electricity bill will be nil, Shanmugam reckons.

Obstacles

The path to local self-sufficiency, however, is not free of obstacles. Every project must be appropriate for the conditions specific to its site. What worked for Odanthurai might not work for neighbouring villages. Erecting wind turbines may not be appropriate everywhere.

Costs are an important issue. The cost of each solar streetlamp was the equivalent of $ 440. According to Shanmugam, many villages cannot afford such sums. Only with support from the state or central governments would panchayats be able to install such lights.

With firewood prices on the rise, operating costs for biomass gasifiers have been rising too. In Odanthurai, producing one kilowatt now costs 140 % more than it did in 2003. Shanmugam believes that the total energy needs of panchayats could be met through high-capacity biomass gasifier units, but only if the price of raw materials were stabilised at a rate favourable to the panchayats.

Most villages, of course, have some fallow land that could be used for energy plantation. It would make sense to encourage local farmers to raise fast-growing trees or energy plants on such plots. Nonetheless, commodity-price fluctuations are unavoidable. K. Muthuchelian, director of the School of Energy, Environment and Natural Resources at Madurai Kamaraj University stresses the need to thoroughly assess regional resources and agricultural potential before embarking on biomass power projects.

The capital requirements will certainly prevent many panchayats from following the example of Odanthurai. Nevertheless the time for action is ripe, argues G. Palanithurai, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Development Administration, Gandhigram University of Tamil Nadu. The state government of Tamil Nadu has cleared the electricity and water arrears of the panchayats, so funds earmarked for that purpose have been freed up. In principle, every panchayat knows exactly how much power it consumes, and it should plan accordingly.

Referring to the Odanthurai example, Palanithurai says: “We need more such models. For instance, energy can be generated from waste. Small gasifiers can be used for pumping water. They enable the panchayats to become self-sufficient.” If India is to maintain its upward course, efforts to realise local energy potential require support. Odanthurai’s success offers a valuable lesson – one India can’t afford to ignore.