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In rural Karnataka, businesses powered by solar energy clean up

Small entrepreneurs who make rotis or roll yarn have tied up with solar power companies to save on electricity bills and make gains

Radio antennas with solar-charging panels.
Radio antennas with solar-charging panels. (iStockphoto)

Blocked off by barricades on both sides of NH 48, Patrenahalli is a nondescript village on the Bengaluru-Pune highway. Most of its residents belong to the erstwhile nomadic, Lambani community. L. Kumar, 41, his wife, N. Sashikala, 32, and their two children, K. Uday, 15, and K. Ashwini, 13, are busy spinning ropes on the coir yarn machine in their small front yard. The yard is choc-a-bloc with rope bundles of varying sizes and shapes. A small rectangular device atop the machine is the only giveaway that the machine is solar-powered.

Kumar disconnects the device from the machine to demonstrate how they used to spin ropes manually. Suddenly, clanking sounds echo through a yard that had been so quiet you could hear the bulbuls chirp on the moringa tree there. Earlier, he explains, one person would have to keep spinning a wheel behind the machine; today the solar-powered small motor does the job. Work that would require at least 10 hours of hard labour from a minimum of three individuals is now done by two persons in a little more than half the time.

“We had to hire labourers and it would take at least one or two more days of work to produce as much as we do now. The cost of paying the labourers would also cut into our profits,” says Kumar. He adds, “With the solar-powered machine, we are able to make more bundles on any given day, my son and daughter are able to take breaks to attend their online classes on the phone and I don’t have to spin the wheel day and night to keep the machine running.”

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The little 75-watt solar panel from Solar Light Pvt. Ltd (Selco), the 60mAh battery and the custom-designed motor, all of which cost 17,000 in total, has brought the advantages of decentralised renewable energy (DRE)—energy that is generated close to where it will be used, rather than at an industrial plant and sent through the national grid—directly to Kumar’s family.

Along with companies such as Sustaintech, SNL Energy Solutions and Envo Renewable Energy Services, Bengaluru-headquartered Selco—one of the oldest in the field—specialises in decentralised solar-powered solutions. With more than 45 branches across Karnataka and a few other parts of India, it has been helping to set up solar energy solutions of varying shapes and sizes for 25 years, installing everything from light bulbs in tribal hamlets in the Western Ghats to solar-powered petrol pumps that need a steady supply of power through the day.

While governments look at the big picture of “green transition” in the energy sector and set a target of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, it’s companies like Selco that are trying to solve the problems of inconsistent power supply that small entrepreneurs and businesses in rural and semi-urban India deal with daily.

L. Kumar and his wife spinning coir yarn into ropes with the help of a solar-powered device.
L. Kumar and his wife spinning coir yarn into ropes with the help of a solar-powered device. (Sibi Arasu)

Customers can approach a company with their requirements; the companies too visit villages and towns. They cater to a variety of needs, be it a roti-rolling machine, a food processing unit or a coir yarn machine. Cost depends on requirement and size. They also tie up with micro-finance companies and banks to arrange loans for customers. All DRE-powered equipment comes with a two-year warranty. A solar panel is expected to have a life of 20-25 years and the battery, about 10 years.

Harish Hande, Magsaysay award winner and one of the founders of Selco India, says: “Now, the fuel source is decentralised, the sun is decentralised, so why not use it to design a system in a similar manner? It is a question of a change in the thought process, changing the belief that the grid is king, and more awareness.”

Scaling up

What companies and their customers are looking for is a demand-driven approach that will spur innovation and policies that can help scale up customised solutions. For, experts agree that DRE can play a huge role in improving lives and livelihoods.

“One of the problems in the social sector is that solutions are customised in nature, so scaling up can be a challenge. While social enterprises can create knowledge, it is up to the government and policymakers to increase the scale of the impact,” says Prof. Sourav Mukherji of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Prof. Mukherji, who has been part of advisory groups at Selco and has included the work done by DRE companies in his coursework, is familiar with the challenges they face, both on the ground and at the policy level. “Given the climate crisis, we do need to focus on large-scale RE projects. There is no doubt about it. I think the tragedy is that this focus, sometimes, is at the cost of smaller and decentralised RE. I think ideally there should be space and incentive for both these sectors to progress in India.”

It’s a point Rachita Misra, associate director at the Selco Foundation, emphasises. “The grid, unfortunately, is not reliable in many parts of India. And where it is reliable, it’s slowly becoming expensive for many. This affects rural lives and livelihoods disproportionately. Power cuts can cost a lot of business damage. If you are not able to supply the goods on time or if a customer comes in and I don’t have power right now, they will go to the next person and that is a customer that is lost forever.”

The companies are trying to address these issues as best they can. “In terms of RE, the moment you change the idea to lean towards the end user, your way of innovating changes,” says Misra. “You can think of decoupling growth from energy. As long as large sections of the population don’t have access to centralised energy supply, DRE can play a huge role in improving lives and livelihoods.”

Customised solutions

Take the case of D. Nagabhushan, 47, a differently-abled desktop publishing and photocopy kiosk owner in the railway town of Davangere in central Karnataka. Nagabhushan was bedridden for many years because of an abnormal growth in the spine. The Association of People with Disability (APD), a Bengaluru-based organisation, helped him regain mobility and then set up a small business in 2015 to support his family and him. APD and the Selco Foundation constructed his kiosk in 2019 and provided printers, fans and lights, all of which are powered by a small solar panel on top of the kiosk.

“Running on solar power has increased my profits by at least 200-400 every day. Although the pandemic and the lockdown have affected business, things are getting better now and I hope to expand my business soon to include some more computers to browse the internet and fill up online forms, if I can,” says Nagabhushan. “For someone in my condition, I would not have imagined that I would be able to make any kind of a living a few years ago. So, to be able to do this now is really incredible for me,” he adds.

There are thousands of users like him.

“We have a wonderful country in terms of decentralisation. We have institutions like cooperatives and self-help groups, which means that you can actually create this new model of development that is decentralised,” says Misra. She adds, “It is not that DRE is the only route to achieve that but we do believe that DRE enables us to look at demand-based innovations. This means, we are not making sure that a person or company consumes more energy so the grid is feasible but it is about figuring out how to optimise supply of energy in the best way possible, so it becomes affordable for everyone.”

Back at Davangere, it is late evening and Nagabhushan is getting ready to close for the day. He’s happy the business is running again. “The lockdown was really tough but my family and I somehow managed. The few hundred rupees extra that using solar energy instead of paying for a connection gives me is making a big difference for us.”

He adds: “If everything gets back to normal, my dream is to make everything in the shop run on solar. I also want to get some additional systems and help other differently-abled people set up similar businesses in Davangere if I can, that is my long-term plan. That way my business can grow and they can also make a good living.”

Sibi Arasu is a Bengaluru-based journalist and tweets @sibi123. This story was supported by a reporting grant from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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