The lack of reliable electricity has led to the increased use of traditional energy sources such as firewood and cow-dung cakes, which are a health and environmental hazard. Power shortages have slowed down the socio-economic growth of rural India. They have also contributed to inadequate healthcare, low literacy rates and poor agricultural and industrial productivity, which finally lead to the migration of rural residents to cities in search of work.
Solar to the rescue
To improve the condition of villages, several initiatives are in the offing. Irumbai, a village in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, will soon become the country’s first village to be fully powered by solar. It is located between Auroville and the Tindivanam highway.
The Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA) submitted its proposal to Tamil Nadu Innovation Initiatives (TANII), administered by the State Planning Commission. Auroville Consulting (AVC), a unit of non-profit organisationAuroville Foundation, conceived the project idea and supported TEDA in the development of the detailed project report (DPR), which was submitted in 2014.
Earlier, TEDA, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO) and the local panchayat had conducted a survey to inspect the local distribution network and define suitable interconnection points for the solar generator. Then, TEDA and AVC audited Irumbai and collected various energy-related data including the consumption rate and pattern, the rate of population growth and its energy needs. Based on this data and the assumed consumption for five years with possible surplus power export, the required capacity of the proposed solar plant was estimated at 170 kW in the DPR. A more detailed door-to-door audit was conducted in 2016 with the help of local village women and youth to get more in-depth data.
For a village to run on solar power and feed excess power generated into the grid, it must have continuous power supply. To ensure this, the village, which is currently registered as a rural feeder, will be categorised as an urban feeder once the Irumbai Solar Village project is completed. With this, the surplus production will be metered. The state government, through an order dated October 30, 2015, sanctioned a pilot project for the installation of a 170 kW grid-connected solar power plant at Irumbai under the uninterrupted electricity scheme of the State Innovation Fund. The pilot also included a study of the socio-economic impact of energy conservation, and measures for creating awareness on sustainable and renewable energy.
As per the Policy Note 2016-17, the Energy Department, Tamil Nadu, to demonstrate that 100 per cent electricity requirement of any village can be met through solar power, Irumbai village has been selected on a pilot basis and a government order has been issued to this effect for installing a 170 kW grid-connected solar power plant at a total cost of Rs 20.61 million. While the ground-mounted solar plant requires only about 1,700 square metres, 2.5 acres of grazing land has been sanctioned for utilisation to support future expansion plans. According to M. Asia Mariam, managing director of TEDA, the solar plant will supply three-phase uninterrupted power to the village, and more villages will be added under the scheme in the future.
As per Greenpeace, the project has twofold objectives – to solarise the village and replace electrical appliances such as lights and fans with energy efficient appliances. This pilot initiative will demonstrate that rural areas can be provided with 24×7 uninterrupted electricity in a sustainable manner and, therefore, can be replicated on a large scale.
The replacement of old fans with 193 energy efficient fans was completed and LED lights were installed in the village in 2016. While every house received one unit, community buildings such as temples and community centres received two to four units. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency 5-star rated fans consume 28 watt power at the highest speed setting, and are estimated to yield 9 per cent annual energy savings. Further, the municipal motor pumps and inefficient street lights will be replaced with energy efficient options.
In May 2018, a tender was issued by TEDA for the design, supply, installation and commissioning, along with operations and maintenance for 15 years, of grid-tied solar power plants aggregating 170 kWp (75+75+20) at Irumbai village, with a bid due date of May 31, 2018. The financial plan was devised such that TEDA would put in 90 per cent of the finances and the district collector on behalf of the people of Irumbai would put in the remaining 10 per cent. This was done to ensure the participation and ownership of the local people. Being a part stakeholder of the project (10 per cent stake), the village will receive an equivalent portion of the revenues. Multiple meetings were held with the villagers, while local women and engineering students were trained in solar panel installation.
TEDA had released Rs 3 million to TANGEDCO for laying new low tension (LT) lines and a transformer. The electricity generated from the proposed solar plant is estimated to be priced at Rs 3.11 per unit. In 2018, it was reported that the tender for soliciting vendors was put on hold by TEDA due to various delays in land acquisition and the 2019 LokSabha elections.
In March 2020, TEDA once again invited bids for setting up the 170 kWp grid-connected solar power plant without batteries. This solar power plant is expected to operate only during the daytime for eight hours per day and 300 days annually, as per TEDA.
According to S. Sankara Narayanan, general manager, TEDA, once the contract is awarded the solar plant could be installed in 15 days, but the civil works involving building of a small room and fence would take some time. “Even after the solar power plant is installed, the village will remain connected to the TANGEDCO grid and excess power generated from the solar plant will be supplied to the grid. The plant’s capacity is twice the village power demand,” he said. Further, a grid-interactive solar energy generator of 170 kW capacity will be purchased/installed under the project, and connected to the village-level electrical infrastructure (LT level).
AVC continues to lobby for other villages. Its Solar Village Initiative, launched in 2018, aims to provide clean, reliable and affordable electricity to 100 villages. It makes a case for village-level solar energy generation to ensure sustainable and inclusive village level development, which in turn will improve the quality of life in rural communities.
The initiative aims to set up 100 MW of solar power in 100 villages by 2030, benefiting approximately 200,000 people. To achieve this goal, income from power sales is not enough. Thus, AVC launched a solar search engine in December 2018. It is a financial instrument as well as an advertising platform for their solar electricity projects. Its partners today include Solarify, greenobazaar, myrightbuy.com, eco.femme, Earthworks Innovative, the Global Resilience Institute and Northeastern University.
Typical routes of grant application and corporate social responsibility are tedious. The idea of using a search engine came out of necessity, as per Martin Scherfler, who co-founded AVC in 2010 to work on sustainable development projects.
Despite the favourable incentives/policies in Tamil Nadu for such solar projects, there are challenges pertaining to approvals for the net feed-in mechanism for HT consumers, long-term exemption from electricity tax for solar energy generators, high feed-in tariff, requirement for a solar generation meter for consumer-owned systems, changing inspection procedures to reduce processing time (inspection of the electrical inspector may be limited to solar PV systems of more than 100 kW for HT consumers while for LT consumers, inspection may be done locally by the TANGEDCO section officer/assistant engineer), etc.
The Solar Energy Policy, 2019 also suggests time-of-day solar energy feed-in tariffs to encourage solar energy producers and solar energy storage operators to feed energy into the grid when energy demand is high (Clause 9.2). The 2019 state electricity regulatory commission order on rooftop solar energy generation needs to address these points.
The installation of solar power plants/generators in villages will help in providing reliable and clean power, reducing the load on the fossil fuel-based grid, capacity building of youth who run/maintain the system, earning revenue from selling the surplus to the grid, using the profits to develop the village economically, and involving local experts, NGOs and self help groups in the whole project.
The aim is to make India’s villages energy positive within the next few years. Also, the Electricity Act, 2003 exempts renewable energy systems from load shedding. Hence, these villages will have 24×7 power supply. The residual power will float to the nearest village, thus reducing transmission losses, which currently stand at 17 per cent.
By Anita Khuller