Empowering rural India – The RE way

India has considerable experience and is home to several innovations and successful examples of providing energy access to the remotest areas of the country. Around 28 inspiring success stories from different parts of the country which are the living examples of the zeal to bring about a change, a determination to surpass the barriers, and an urge to adopt and promote renewable energy technologies to suit local requirements, have been compiled into a compendium titled ‘Empowering rural India the RE way: inspiring success stories’. In this issue, we present two such inspiring stories of use of renewable energy in the farming sector.

Case 1

Fresh vegetables in Ladakh

Situated at an altitude of more than 3500 m above sea level, the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir is one of the famous cold deserts of the world characterized by cold breeze and blazing sun. Ladakh receives very low rainfall. In winters, the temperature can be as low as –25 ºC. The climate makes it difficult to grow fresh vegetables and other crops in the open for almost nine months in a year as plants die because of freezing cold. Airlifting the vegetables from the plains in winter and bringing them by road in summer is a normal practice for the people living in Ladakh, making these fresh vegetables expensive and their availability limited. Most of the locals rarely get to eat fresh vegetables and hence, many suffer from malnutrition. Being a rainshadow area means the sky  is mainly devoid of clouds. Ladakh experiences clear sunny days for almost 300 days in a year. Exploiting this sunny climate of Ladakh, GERES (Groupe Energies Renouvelables, Environment et Solidarités) started developing improved passive solar greenhouses to grow fresh vegetables and other crops indoors even during the winter season. For the last 10 years, GERES is working in this area in collaboration with LEHO (Ladakh Environmental Health Organization), LEDEG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group), the Leh Nutrition Project, and STAG (SKARCHEN and SPITI Trans-Himalayan Action Group/Ecosphere) .

GERES developed an IGH (improved greenhouse) to maximize the capture of solar energy during the day, minimize the heat loss at night, and thus prevent plants from dying due to freezing. The greenhouses are designed in such a way that they are sufficiently heated using only solar energy and do not require any empowering rural India supplementary heating. Some of the salient features of the improved greenhouses are as follows.

  • The greenhouse is oriented along an east–west axis with a long south-facing side.
  • This long south side has a transparent cover made of heavy duty polythene with an extra stabilizer to withstand the intense UV rays present in the sunlight. The polythene is built to last for a period of more than five years. A double layer of polythene is used in severely cold places.
  • The north, east, and west side walls of the greenhouse are constructed using mud bricks in low and medium snow fall areas and with stone or rock in heavy snow fall areas to enable the green house to absorb maximum heat from the sun during the day and release the stored heat at night to maintain a temperature suitable for healthy growth of plants inside the greenhouse.
  • The walls on the north, east, and west sides are constructed as cavity walls to help in minimizing heat loss from the greenhouse. The 100-mm cavity in these walls is filled with insulating material such as sawdust or straw. The roof is slanted at an angle of 35º to allow maximum direct sunlight during the winter season. At night, the roof is covered with thatch and the polythene on the south side is covered with a cloth or tarpaulin to prevent heat loss.
  • Vents are provided on the walls and on the roof to avoid excess humidity and heat and also to allow controlled natural ventilation.
  • The inner side of the north- and west-facing walls are painted black to improve heat absorption and the east-facing wall is painted white to reflect the morning sunlight on to the crops. There is a door in the wall at one end.

Except the polythene used for covering the south side, the entire greenhouse is constructed using locally available material. The main frame of the roof is made using local poplar wood, willows are used for struts, and straw or water-resistant local grass is used for the thatch. Rock, stone, mud bricks or rammed earth are used in the construction of walls. The polythene sheet has to be procured from places like Mumbai. Local masons were employed to construct the greenhouse by providing them with special training wherever required. The greenhouse comes in two sizes. A smaller greenhouse with 4.5 m breadth and 9.7 m length for domestic use and a bigger greenhouse with 4.8 m breadth and 27.3 m length for commercial use. The construction cost of a domestic use IGH is approximately Rs 30,000. The owner of the domestic IGH has to either pay or collect all the locally available material like wood for the roof frame, straw for thatch, mud bricks, and the material used for insulation. He has to provide the labour or pay for the labour required for and provides the doors, vents, and the special UV stabilized polythene, which comes to about 25% of the total cost. Some subsidy is given for domestic IGH.

Construction of the greenhouses is timed in such a way that it matches the agricultural cycle of Ladakh.

GERES monitors the IGH construction by providing the methodology and design. LEHO and other local NGOs coordinate in selecting the prospective owners, training them on greenhouse maintenance and operation, and providing other support needed for constructing the greenhouse to local owners.

Local NGOs have set up certain criteria to select the prospective owners of a domestic IGH.

  • Families should belong to the BPL (below the poverty line) category.
  • They should have a site suitable for greenhouse construction.
  • The family must be keen to use the greenhouse successfully and also willing to share the products with the community at large.

A wide variety of vegetables including spinach, coriander, garlic, radish, onions, lettuce, and strawberries are grown in winter. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and grapes are grown in autumn and in spring seedlings are grown in the greenhouses. Some families have even started growing flower plants and potted plants.

Improved greenhouses have benefited the people of Ladakh, especially in terms of health. Prior to introduction of IGH, during winter people used to consume fresh vegetables only once or twice in a month. However, since the time IGHs were introduced, the consumption has increased to two to three times in a week. On an average one IGH owner provides fresh vegetables to nine other families and barters with six other families, resulting in an improvement in their health. On an average, the villagers are able to save Rs 500 to Rs 1000 on vegetable purchases as locally grown fresh vegetables cost less when compared to imported vegetables.

Production of fresh vegetables locally reduces dependency on imports from plains, thus saving the expenditure on transportation. According to some estimates of GERES, the 560 greenhouses presently in operation are able to     save about 460 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

The IGH has also brought employment opportunities to locals. About 220 masons and 15 carpenters have received training and got livelihood through constructing greenhouses.

The IGHs have increased income generation for their owners, as now they can earn additional income by selling vegetables and seedlings for cash. Surveys conducted have revealed that on an average an IGH owner earns Rs 8250 per year by selling their excess produce providing a 30% increase in their income levels.

The scale-up potential for IGHs in the high-altitude Himalayan states is very large. In Ladakh, alone the potential demand for IGH to produce fresh vegetables for civilian consumption is about 3000 units. It may double up to 6000 units, if military requirement for fresh vegetables is included. At present, replacement of UV-resistant polythene sheet every five years and also lack of awareness among agricultural/horticulture departments at the state level is proving to be a barrier in the promotion of IGHs. The solar passive concepts of south-facing glazings, high thermal mass, and insulation can also be used in other constructions like individual houses, public buildings, schools, hospitals, and government offices.

Case 2

Providing biomass energy for rural India

The story from Karnataka villages

The BERI (Biomass Energy for Rural India) project is conceptualized at developing and implementing a bioenergy technology package to reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and to promote sustainable and participatory approach in meeting rural energy needs. The total budget for the initiative is $8,623,000 and the project proponents include the GoK (Government of Karnataka); Gram Panchayat people’s representatives, private investors, and people residing in the targeted project villages; UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) funded by the GEF (Global Environment Facility); and co-financed by the ICEF (India-Canada Environment Facility); GoK; MNRE (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy), GoI (Government of India); and beneficiaries.

The project is being implemented since 2001 in five village clusters consisting of 28 villages in Tumkur district of Karnataka. The project has been designed to showcase bioenergy technologies that include bioelectricity produced from biomass gasification, community biogas plants, and efficient cookstoves. It was designed in such a way that the bioelectricity produced makes use of the biomass coming from energy plantations raised for the purpose.

Energy plantation, biomass gasifier plants, and evacuation of power

It was estimated that to run a 1000-kW biomass gasifier plant, approximately 3000 ha of land and a biomass yield estimated at 12,000 tonnes per year (4.2 tonnes per hectare per year) were required. Tree plantations were raised in 2930 ha (1983 ha of forest land and 947 ha of treebased farming) to support the biomass requirements of the power plants. It has supported the livelihoods of over 240 women in 81 SHGs (self-help groups) who raised about one million seedlings. Thirty households have been employed for tree-based farming.

Gasifier-based plants were established in three clusters. A 500-kW capacity system was installed in Kabbigere (including two gasifier systems of 100 kW each and one of 200 kW using 100% producer gas and another with 100 kW dual fuel). These plants together have generated 1,520,000 kWh of electricity as of June 2012. In addition, two more gasifier-based power plants of 250-kW capacity each have been installed in Seebanayanapalya and Borigunte. The power generated is evacuated to the BESCOM (Bangalore Electricity Supply Company) grid. Generation and distribution are synchronized to the grid through a dedicated 11-kV transmission line. The BERI Society and Tovinakere Grama Panchayat have signed a first-of-its-kind PPA (power purchase agreement) with BESCOM to sell the power produced to the state power utility. The tariff set was Rs 2.85/kWh.

Operations of the gasifier power plant

Biomass is raised on the plantation. The VFCs (village forest committees) are involved in managing the plantation. The VBEMC (Village Biomass Energy Management Committee) and panchayat together are involved in taking decisions in biomass procurement and gasifier plant management. The power generated is metered and evacuated to the grid. A diagrammatic representation of these linkages is shown in figure 1.

 Engagement with the local community

Four NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were identified to work with the communities to create awareness on energy issues and promote the project. They are BIRD-K, Mother, IYD, and Srijan (Table 1). The activities included provision of borewells, laying of drip irrigation systems, and construction of community biogas plants and improved cookstoves for village households.

Table 1  : NGOs involved in the project

S.No NGO Cluster
1 BIRD-K Koratagere (5 villages)
2 BIRD-K Madhugiri (5 villages)
3 MOTHER Gubbi (7 villages)
4 IYD Tumkur (5 villages)
5 SRIJAN Sira (6 villages)

Community borewells, biogas plants, and improved cookstoves

Fifty-six borewells were dug benefiting 127 households. The borewell water is shared among three to four neighbouring families. These borewells are connected with drip irrigation systems that ensure saving water and have reduced the energy required for pumping it from a depth of over 300 feet. The project has leveraged other schemes of the government, such as RLMS (Rural Load Management Scheme) that has ensured better quality of power for longer durations, to benefit the villagers.

Other initiatives have been construction of 51 small community biogas plants estimated to have generated more than 95,000 m3 of biogas. Provision of improved cookstoves in households has helped reduce the fuel consumption and indoor air pollution.

Community irrigation programme

The creation of WUAs (water users associations) is one of the most critical initiatives of this project. The project area is primarily rainfed and farmers in the project area mostly grew rain-fed crops like ragi and jowar. As an entry point activity, and a long-term strategy, the establishment of community irrigation systems was facilitated. The borewells were dug in the project village and the plan was that they would be ultimately run through biomass-based electricity produced under the project. The main purpose of this programme was to augment existing livelihoods, generate income, improve the socio-economic condition of poor farmers, and cultivate the habit of paying fee for service. Most importantly, these activities brought in and put in place platforms for discussions, discipline, awareness, and rules and norms, which bound the larger community. These served a larger purpose of community ownership and the spirit of working together.

Project impacts on the community, its scalability

Under the project, a 1-MW biomass gasifier power plant has been installed in three villages in Koratagere taluk. These systems together have generated approximately 1.5 million units of electricity by 30 June 2012 contributing to a reduction of 1200 tCO2.

An analysis during the last year showed that the cost of power generated is in the range of Rs 4.50 to Rs 8.28 per kWh depending on the PLF (plant load factor), quality and cost of biomass, optimization in operation, and so on. The revenue generated by selling it to the grid was only Rs 2.85 per kWh (tariff support by the government). Hence, the tariff support needs to be addressed to encourage small scale power production. The small-scale power production has significant intangible benefits such as green cover, increase in rural economy, and employment. The energy plantation in 3000 ha was expected to yield 12,000 tonnes annually. However, it is yielding only about 5000 tonnes per year.

One of the estimates indicates that these plantations have resulted in sequestering approximately 26,580 tCO2 annually. Fifty-one group biogas plants were installed and according to a survey carried out in 2010, 40 of them were functional. These reduce 148 tCO2 annually. The project details and technical performance data are uploaded on the website, which is perhaps the only project uploading basic data (www.bioenergyindia.in).

The distribution of cost of production of this biomass power is as follows: 57% on fuel (biomass), 18% fixed cost, 15% maintenance, and 10% on labour. Thus, the project provided enormous social benefits as 45% of total generation cost remain within the community. The project spread in 28 villages also provided 32 borewells for 127 farmers, and 20 community borewells. These have resulted in increased crop intensity – more than two crops per year now – which, in turn, has increased farm income by 20%–30% (now it is about Rs 40,000–50,000 per acre).

The project established 26 village bio-energy management committees, 26 village forest committees, and 72 new SHGs, and strengthened 68 old SHGs covering 2244 households (74%), 31 WUAs (216 hhs) and 33 biogas user groups (BUGs). The project has invested about Rs 7 crore on the 1-MW power plant. When fully operational, it can generate Rs 1.5–2.5 crore per year by selling power. Assuming a per capita income of Rs 12,000 per year (Tumkur district), in a typical grama panchayat with about 8000 persons, the turnover can be about Rs 9 crore. The project is spread over 4 grama panchayats, and thus the total turnover is about Rs 35 crore. Therefore, such a green intervention can enhance the overall income by about 7%–8%. It can also add to employment. About 100 people can be employed in the management of bioenergy packages that largely include biomass power generating units. In addition, employment in the plantations management and nursery arrangement can also add to green outcomes.

Scale-up potential

BERI appears to be a replicable model of provision of tail-end support to base loads and has showcased how distribution of decentralized power can benefit local communities. If tariff support is restructured, especially at sub-megawatt scale, it has the potential to replicate, proliferate, encourage entrepreneurs and benefit rural populace. The decentralized unit would ensure no or low transit loss and cost associated with energy losses during transmission. Fast-growing species like Prosopis juliflora, Lantana camara, Epil-epil (Subabool), Glyciridia, and bamboo in dedicated energy plantations can provide the fuel supply linkages and can enhance the green cover and carbon sequestration.

Source: V K Jain and S N Srinivas (Eds.), ‘Empowering rural India the RE way: inspiring success stories’, © Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, 2012, ISBN: 978-81-920040-0-6

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