One has to trek for three days through steep valleys, hills and dense forests, and cross the 4,665 metre high Thamser pass to reach one of the remotest parts of Himachal Pradesh, Bara Bhangal gram panchayat in Chamba district. The 168 households of this village have been living without electricity for almost 10 years since the 40 kW micro-hydropower project became dysfunctional. However, now the people of this village see light at the end of the tunnel.
The Bara Bhangal gram panchayat remains cut off from the rest of the country for over six months due to snow and therefore the majority of families leave the village at the beginning of October for warmer places and come back by May. When they return this time, each family will have a 250 watt solar system of its own to light up its home. The solar panels and all other accessories of the individual solar systems for all the 168 households were either flown in by helicopters or carried by mules by October, but by then most families had left the village. Fifteen families that stayed back already had the solar system in place and were able to enjoy solar light before Diwali.
According to Rupali Thakur, chief executive officer, Himurja, the installations will be completed and all the families will be given ownership of their solar systems upon return.
The people of Bara Bhangal depended on resin mashals called “jugnu” before 2004 when Sai Engineering Foundation constructed the micro-hydropower project. The foundation, which constructed the hydropower project at a whopping cost of Rs 15 million in a period spanning four years, was providing free electricity to the people. Later, the project was handed over to Himurja, the state government’s nodal agency for renewable energy programmes. As the village remains cut off for over six months, maintainance was a huge issue. The locals trained to run it, in the course of time, left the village for greener pastures. The generators got burnt twice, a huge landslide destroyed the conductor and forebay, and eventually the project was abandoned.
The agency then explored the option of constructing a solar microgrid. This also could not be worked out as the people refused to provide their land for the construction of the facility (approximately 2.5 acres of land is required for the construction of a 1 MW capacity solar microgrid). Understandably so, as the landlocked village hardly has the kind of spare land that could have been provided. The agency ultimately decided to opt for solar power.
Another set of 49 families from three remote villages situated in the vicinity of the Great Himalayan National Park, of heritage status in Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh, are also eagerly awaiting the day when each of them will have their own solar systems to light up their households. The villages do not have power supply, telecommunication facility and road connectivity. For now, they are dependent on solar lamps or kerosene lamps. The three villages – Shakti, Shugar and Marog – in Banjar block of Kullu district can only be reached on foot, with the nearest being 19 km away from the road. Surrounded by the Sainj Wildlife Sanctuary, these villages cannot be connected to the power grid as transmission lines cannot be laid, nor is it possible to construct a micro hydropower plant or opt for a solar hybrid microgrid.
A recce was done in October by a team led by DC Kullu Ashutosh Garg and included personnel from Himurja. After this it was decided that the best option would be to provide each family in the three villages with a 250 Watt individual solar system. Weather permitting, the technical staff of the implementing firm will soon trek to these villages to install the solar systems.
Although Himachal Pradesh achieved 100 per cent rural electrification way back in 1998 and electricity is provided on demand in the state, it ranks the lowest as far as the average duration of power in rural areas is concerned. This is mainly because of frequent power disruption during winters in the tribal and snowbound regions of the state. Snowfall causes tripping of transmission lines and wires leading to snapping of power supply for days together. Repairs cannot be immediately undertaken because of the closure of roads due to snow or the topography of the affected area. Restoration of electrcity sometimes takes more than a week or 10 days. Also, in these remote areas, the voltages fall drastically in winters.
It was in this backdrop that an extensive drive was launched by the state government last year. The Pangi valley in Chamba situated at heights ranging from 7,000 feet to 11,000 feet, is one such area where a large-scale off-grid solar programme was launched last year. Earlier, in 2016-17, 50 solar systems of 1 kWp capacity each were installed for beneficiaries in Pangi subdivision. Pangi gets its supply of power through an internal grid that draws electricity from river line hydropower projects, but as the water freezes during winters, the generation of power falls drastically. And so, like other tribal areas, the people there have to face power disruption in winters. 1,000 below poverty line (BPL) families in Pangi Valley were given the ownership of 250 Watt capacity solar systems in the last fiscal free of cost. The remaining 1,162 BPL families will be covered by the end of this financial year. Two service stations were also set up and training was given to locals to run them for repair and maintenance purposes. For the purpose, spare parts for carrying out repair work are stocked before winter sets in.
The module of the 250 wp solar plant for individual householders includes lithium ferrophosphate type 24 V, 80 Ah battery, and five 9 Watt LED bulbs. Each system costs over Rs 37,000. All these off-grid systems have a backup of five to seven hours.
“We found that individual solar systems are best suited for snow-bound and remote areas,” says Thakur and lists out several reasons for batting for individual solar systems. The equipment is lightweight and can be carried, even manually if necessary. The gestation period is short. The installation of the system does not take much time. Once the ownership of the system is given, the individual houseowner takes proper care of the system ensuring that no damage is done to the panels or the batteries. The 250 Watt solar system provides enough power to a household to light up four to five LED bulbs, enjoy LED TV and charge mobile phones.
Solar panels last for about 25 years and battery, after proper maintenance, can last at least five years. The cost, as compared to micro hydropower projects, is far less. As in the case of the Pangi valley where two service stations are being run by locals, there are no major issues with regard to repairs as is the case with hydro projects. While opting for 250 Watt may be the right solution under the circumstances, it cannot match the power from the grid or electricity from micro-hydropower projects. The 250 Watt capacity solar system cannot be used for heating purposes. In severe weather conditions the performace of batteries can be an issue. According to the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board, it is trying for improved versions of battery energy storage systems.
According to the Himurja CEO, the centre needs to subsidise the installation of these systems at least for the remote and snow-bound regions so that the people living in these areas do not have to spend their nights in the dark during the harsh winters.
By Sarita Brara