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Solar-powered water pumps take the pain, and expense, out of water collection. Photo: Chhavi Sharma / Ashden.
Solar-powered water pumps take the pain, and expense, out of water collection. Photo: Chhavi Sharma / Ashden.
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    Infosys has cut its electricity bills by a staggering $80 million since 2008. Photo: Chhavi Sharma / Ashden.
  • These solar panels power micro-grids that provide villages with light and phone charging. Photo: Chhavi Sharma / Ashden.
    These solar panels power micro-grids that provide villages with light and phone charging. Photo: Chhavi Sharma / Ashden.

India rising to sustainable energy challenge

Chhavi Sharma

19th May 2014

Three very different sustainable energy projects from India are among the finalists in this year's Ashden Awards, writes Chhavi Sharma - all of them inspiring and showing this vast country the way to a clean, secure, affordable energy future for all.

The retrofit programme ... has enabled Infosys to cut a staggering $80 million off its electricity bill in the last six years.

Rapid economic growth and accompanying spiralling energy requirements have put India under tremendous pressure, increasing the energy import bill and creating ever greater strain on the grid.

Meanwhile, with 400 million people in India having nothing but a kerosene lamp to provide light after sunset, energy poverty is hindering India's superpower ambitions and threatening to undermine growth.

There is also increasing discontent at the impact of coal fired power developments, often supplied by vast open cast mines that destroy entire forests and rural communities, and whose pollution casts a shadow over the lives of millions.

The energy challenges confronting India are enormous, but reform is vital if India is to meet the needs of its population and curb its growing carbon emissions.

A 'renewable energy revolution' is promised

Investing in the renewable energy sector must be a priority - and that was something that most political parties recognised during the recent election campaign.

And the election winner, the BJP, or Bharatiya Janta Party, is committed to implementing a 'renewable energy revolution'. It aims to harness India's enormous hydro, wind and solar resources, and develop biogas plants, in order to make electricity available and affordable to all. 

Unsurprisingly, therefore, for this year's Ashden Awards we received a range of excellent applications from India that demonstrated the innovative sustainable energy work taking place across the country. I was privileged to visit three of our shortlisted projects this year.

My trip began in Jaipur, the capital of India's desert state, Rajasthan.

Solar power water-pumps giving farmers the 'gift of life'

Rajasthan is one of the poorest and driest states in India, with more than a quarter of people in rural areas living below the poverty line. But the state is also blessed with one free and abundant resource: the sun.

In 2010, the state and central governments started funding a solar water pumping project to tackle the acute power and water shortages in the region.

The programme, dubbed the Rajasthan Horticulture Development Society, combines solar water pumps with drip irrigation and hi-tech horticulture to enable farmers to cultivate their land all year round, instead of just one monsoon-fed crop - thereby increasing yields and more than doubling incomes.

This has completely revolutionised agriculture in the state. The farmers I met are now growing exotic vegetables and high-value crops like zucchini, squash, leek and celery for export as well as for the tourism industry in India.

They seemed quite comfortable identifying their produce, and the different varieties, by English names, even though they had no clue as to how it tasted or how it should be cooked!

The project has reached more than 10,000 farmers to date, and its impact is undeniable, with youth now returning from the cities to their families' farms, as they realise its enormous potential. One farmer told me that the project had given his family the "gift of life".

Lighting up Indian villages

My next visit was Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's most populous states with poor infrastructure and very high levels of poverty.

A two-hour drive from Lucknow, the state capital, lies Sitapur, where Mera Gao Power has developed India's lowest cost and first unsubsidised, commercially viable solar-powered micro-grid targeted at the rural poor.

This technology offers an alternative to the over-stretched and unreliable grid power, and is giving many local people electricity at night for the first time.

Each system provides a cluster of up to 32 houses with two lights and a mobile phone charger for seven hours a night, for a weekly fee of just INR 25 (about 25p). That's enough to meet families' priority energy needs, and costs far less than the expensive and toxic kerosene that it displaces.

I witnessed first-hand how this has impacted the lives of 50-year-old Wahid Ali and his neighbours, by providing a smoke-free home environment, easier mobile phone communication and electric lights for the children to study at night.

The increased lighting has also helped women and children to feel safer at night.

Infosys - power bill cut by $80 million in six years

At the other end of the energy spectrum was my third and final stop - Infosys. A global IT giant, with state-of-the-art campuses across 10 cities in India, and offices throughout the world, Infosys is a leader in sustainability in India.

Working on the design of new, low-energy buildings made the Infosys infrastructure team aware of potential energy savings in their existing building stock. So with full support of senior management, they started a programme to identify opportunities for energy savings, and to retrofit buildings to achieve them.

Since 2008 it has seized every opportunity to save all the energy they can by retrofitting their existing buildings, which provide offices for almost 130,000 people.

Measures taken range from reducing the size of centralised chiller plants that provide cold water for air conditioning, and upgrading power back-up systems. Clever low-tech steps like painting roofs white to reflect the sun means cooling systems don't have to work quite so hard.

I visited three of Infosys' ultramodern campuses in South India, and all three were testimony to the energy efficiency and ecological policies and practices of the company.

The retrofit programme, combined with designing new buildings that meet the highest standards for environmental performance, has enabled Infosys to cut a staggering $80 million off its electricity bill in the last six years.

By doing so, the company has shown not just other Indian businesses, but large businesses across the world, that the business case for investing in energy efficiency is unassailable.

2014 Ashden Awards

Every year the Ashden Awards celebrates the most exciting sustainable energy trailblazers around the world and the three projects described above are among the 26 finalists for the 2014 Awards which will be awarded this week, on Thursday 22nd May to a total of 14 winners.

Each winner stands to receive a prize worth up to £40,000, and support to grow their efforts further.

With 17% of the world's population and an economy growing by about 5% a year, how India manages its dual energy challenge - not just whether it can meet the energy needs of the poor, but whether it can grow sustainably - must surely be of serious interest to the rest of the world. The coming few years will be critical.

 


 

Chhavi Sharma is International Programme Manager at Ashden. She has an MSc in Environment and Development from the London School of Economics and has spent over eight years working in the sustainable energy sector, focusing on energy access and rural electrification.

Rajasthan Horticulture Development Society, Mera Gao Power and Infosys are all finalists for the 2014 Ashden Awards, which celebrate sustainable energy pioneers that are tackling climate change and reducing poverty. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society on 22nd May.

 

 

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