Covid-19 has disrupted normalcy and negatively affected businesses across sectors. The decentralised renewable energy (DRE) segment has been no exception to this. Instrumental in advancing energy access to rural India, the DRE segment is manoeuvring through challenges of reduced demand from consumers and shortage of working capital, among other things. To understand these challenges better, earlier this year, CLEAN (a network of more than 220 DRE enterprises) conducted a survey of micro, small and medium enterprises operating in the DRE space. As per the survey, 71 per cent of these enterprises have responded that their sustenance could become uncertain beyond two to four months. In these difficult times, when sustenance is critical for businesses, we have shining examples of DRE enterprises standing tall to serve communities in some of the most remote pockets of the country. These enterprises have been working hard to ensure access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy for the socio-economically poor communities, making steady progress towards achieving SDG 7 Sustainable Development Goal 7, that is, access to affordable and clean energy.
A look at some of these enterprises making a positive impact in the rural areas of the country…
Mlinda provides essential services support in Gumla, Jharkhand
Positively impacting over 6,000 rural and tribal lives in Gumla district, Jharkhand, 40 solar-powered minigrids commissioned by Mlinda could not have served a better purpose at a better time. During the lockdown, these minigrids have gone beyond pure electricity supply to operational villages and have contributed to growth in productive loads and in enhancing local incomes, an impact that most contemporary businesses struggle to create.
In recognition of the valuable services provided by Mlindaminigrids, as well as the ecosystem of livelihood services and local trust that the enterprise created, the district administration of Gumla and Mlinda agreed to continue the minigrid supply “under essential services” across 40 operational villages. This joint effort has ensured uninterrupted electricity supply in these villages, powering the local agri-processing and irrigation services, the manufacturing and supply of solar pressed pure edible mustard oil in the district, and enhancing the overall well-being of these villagers. Team Mlinda, besides ensuring a stable income for its employees, has also been working relentlessly, round the clock, to provide essential services to local communities. These minigrids have become lifelines for powering households, local shops and farming activities. Mlinda’s effort has proved that DRE-powered technologies could be a viable option, even in adverse circumstances.
PRESPL uses bioenergy to infuse stable livelihoods for communities
Punjab Renewable Energy Systems Private Limited (PRESPL) is a leading Indian entrepreneur-cum-contributor in the biomass supply chain management space. In addition to its regular employees, PRESPL has successfully engaged over 1,000 village-level entrepreneurs to create a market for agricultural residues and a sustainable and valuable supply chain for waste-to-wealth in the bioenergy segment.
This intervention has had striking additional benefits such as generating rural employment, which, in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, has proved to be a boon for the local people. Besides, it has been helping to increase farmers’ income and reduce the dependence on fossil fuels. Emissions from locally collected firewood have now been replaced by sustainable agri-residues, thereby converting waste into wealth as well as utilising this resource for the overall economic development of the region.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, PRESPL revitalised the biomass-based bioenergy segment in the country by rolling out the build-own-operate-transfer model for steam at cost purchase agreement with Sun Pharmaceuticals Industries Limited. According to PRESPL, it is the first-ever project on industrial steam from raw biomass, resulting in a 30 per cent reduction in the cost of steam energy for clients and direct bottom line addition.
Amidst the lockdown, the plant has run for over 3,000 hours between March and July, 2020, even with constraints of a lack of the total workforce. Effective supply chain management ensured that it ran at 100 per cent availability, supporting essential commodities and services, adhering to all personal hygiene and social distancing norms during the pandemic, and most of all, providing a stable livelihood support to the local families, including around 50 women employees in different functions, even managerial positions, within the enterprise.
Oorja provides reliable solutions to farmers in Uttar Pradesh
Despite constraints posed by the current pandemic, Oorja Development Solutions has deployed six 5 HP community solar irrigation pumps and two 3 HP agro-processing mills in five villages of Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh, with support from Stichting DOEN. All these projects are now operational, providing essential services to small and marginal farmers and their families, critical for their livelihood, especially in these times of health crisis and limited work opportunities. The expansion of the “Oonnati” (community solar pumping model) service has enabled over 120 smallholder farmers to make a transition from the more expensive diesel-based irrigation to solar without any upfront technology acquisition cost. They now have access to affordable and reliable irrigation on-demand round the year and are saving 20-25 per cent of their expenditure on diesel. They can also engage in inter-season cropping and grow cash crops such as peppermint and other vegetables. To minimise the impact of Covid-19, Oorja is working out a payment plan for customers by offering a longer credit period.
In May this year, Oorja also initiated the Covid-19 emergency fundraiser to support 100 farming families who were disproportionately affected by the strict lockdown, with agricultural inputs (seeds and fertiliser) for the next paddy growing season. The enterprise successfully raised Rs 100,000 (USD 1,300) through crowdfunding to provide packages of paddy seeds (3 kg hybrid), fertilisers (45 kg bag of phosphate or urea), as well as hygiene products (masks and soaps) to these families. These were distributed in four villages of Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh, ensuring continuity of food and income for more than 500 lives.
Blackfrog Technologies defines the future of medical-grade refrigeration
The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought into the spotlight vulnerabilities of health systems across the world, including reliable cold storage. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 per cent of vaccines (25 per cent for liquid vaccines) go to waste before they are actually administered. One of the main reasons for this is disruption in the cold chain supply. Vaccines are temperature-sensitive and must be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius to remain efficacious. However, as things stand on the ground, there is no accountability as to when vials leave primary or sub-health centres and where they are refrigerated. “Last-mile” immunisation cold chain in remote, low-income settings that are reliant on ice-based technologies face compliance problems, accidental freezing and/or warming, and lack of temperature monitoring during their widow.
In the suburbs of Manipal, a team of engineers at Blackfrog Technologies has been working untiringly to produce Emvolio, a portable solar-powered refrigerator to transport thermally sensitive biological samples. Such products could be the much awaited answer to vaccine refrigeration problems in the last mile as they replace the currently used unreliable ice boxes, ensuring temperature control in addition to 12 hours of battery backup.
The rudimentary arrangement of using an ice box for storing throat swab specimens exposes them to risks of over or under freezing. This could have a strong bearing on their efficacy during transit, leading to inaccurate test results of Covid-19 patients. Emvolio offers safety and convenience during transportation and delivery of all types of biologicals such as blood samples and throat swab samples that need to be kept strictly under 2-8 degrees Celsius for up to eight hours. Complying with the lockdown standard operating procedures, the team at Blackfrog has been working hard to maximise the production of this portable solar-powered refrigerator, which could potentially be used for the delivery of the novel coronavirus vaccine once it hits the market.
Serving communities to empower them
While it is no secret that people across communities are grappling with the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, it has also brought forth many positive aspects. Companies are flexing their innovative muscles to think of new ways and technologies that can conveniently serve their consumers. Conversely, existing and underrated technologies such as DRE-powered appliances are already making a massive and timely impact, especially in the lives of remote rural communities. SvatiBhogle, president of the CLEAN network, says, “CLEAN member enterprises deploying these DRE technologies are not only ticking the box for service delivery in neglected regions but are also proving to be an indispensable source for securing livelihoods for the local population in this hour of need.” Although the need and intention to serve the underserved are being felt across the country, closure of non-essential manufacturing activities post the lockdown has negatively impacted the execution of DRE projects for many of them. With “profit” and “revenue” taking a back seat, these enterprises need immediate financial support for sustenance. The impact of CLEAN members would multiply manyfold if some DRE-linked services such as local-level biomass aggregation and compaction are made a part of the activities encouraged under the state rural livelihood missions.
Decentralisation of resources is key to generating employment at the local level. The situation demands that small-scale DRE enterprises be supported so that they can continue to create local employment opportunities for the most vulnerable and affected communities.