Community Microgrids: Providing reliable and stable power to the Indian Sundarbans

Providing reliable and stable power to the Indian Sundarbans

By Venkat Garimella, Vice-President, Corporate Strategy and CSR, Schneider Electric

There has been significant progress in terms of improving electricity access and providing a resource base for the rural Indian population. The deployment of renewable energy, notably solar, has improved energy efficiency. By addressing the requirements of clean and sustainable home lighting solutions, solar has reduced the dependency on biomass cooking stoves, kerosene, agricultural waste and dung for cooking, lighting and heating purposes.

Project SahasraJyoti, started by WWF-India in 2016, is an initiative to ensure that the forest fringe communities get access to affordable, efficient and modern energy services that deliver socio-economic and conservation benefits. Various solar microgrids have been installed under the initiative by Schneider Electric. They are owned, controlled and managed by the local community. This year, when one of the decade’s most severe cyclones, Amphan, hit West Bengal and Bangladesh, it destroyed everything that came in its path. The major impact of the cyclone was witnessed in the ecologically fragile Indian Sundarbans delta. Most of the Sundarbans remained without power for up to a week. However, the Satjelia Island in the Sundarbans, with approximately 8,293 households, stood out as an exception. The community solar microgrids held fort and continued to serve communities in an important life-supporting way.

A community solar microgrid is a small energy system planned, designed and installed to provide reliable and clean energy for vital community facilities and assets within a defined area. The stand-alone solar PV systems or microgrids have proved to be a viable sustainable energy solution for island-based communities in the Sundarbans. A huge benefit for the residents is that there is no issue of load shedding or power scarcity in villages lit up by solar microgrids, which was one of the problems faced earlier. As part of the initiative, the island now has six DC microgrids, with a combined installed capacity of 84.12 kW, powering over 700 households, eight public institutions including small businesses and rural institutions and more than 80 street lights on the fringes implemented by Schneider Electric. Electricity from microgrids enables each household to use three LED lamps, a fan, two switchboards with plug points for cell phone charging and other appliances.

During the initial stages of microgrid installation, large amounts of hardware were procured and transported through waterways, often under adverse weather conditions and amidst the challenging landscapes of the Sundarbans. WWF-India took over the community engagement responsibility and the Schneider Electric India Foundation provided technical support.

The project began in January 2016 in collaboration with the community members. During the first phase, 69 households and 25 shops participated in this DC microgrid project. The energy systems were planned, designed and installed in consultation with village energy committees that manage and operate these systems. WWF-India also transferred the ownership of all DC microgrids to the local gram panchayat. These solar microgrid systems are helping forest fringe communities to move on the trajectory of sustainable development.

A recent study initiated by KPMG highlighted some interesting and unexpected outcomes from this project. Well-lit settlements significantly reduced the risks connected with negative human-wildlife interaction. Solar microgrids have also had a significant impact on people’s lives, creating new opportunities for sustainable socio-economic growth and providing safe, secure, affordable and sustainable electricity solutions. Children in these communities now have a better future as greater access to electricity allows them more time to study in the evenings as well.

The enhanced skill sets and capacity development enable communities to manage and operate renewable energy utilities. This project has also seen greater participation from women and presented opportunities for local entrepreneurship and growth in home-run businesses leading to wealth creation. Most importantly, these microgrids rebounded quickly in times of disaster to help the community meet their energy requirements. In sum, resilience has become key at a time of natural disasters and power outages. It is time to switch from a fragile energy system to one that is more robust and driven by local renewables. Clearly, microgrids play a crucial role as a resilient energy infrastructure.