India’s pilgrim centres, industries, learning centres and other institutions are increasingly looking to the sky for tapping solar energy for their kitchens that cater to thousands on a day-to-day basis. A look at the green move by M.A. Siraj

India has a large number of pilgrim centres that attract visitors from across the globe all round the year. It is a tradition that these centres, with large community kitchens, cater to the visiting clientele with variety food. Green sensibilities have entered these kitchens too, as they are tapping solar energy and slowly shedding the old energy-guzzling ways of cooking. A lot of industrial and commercial canteens are getting rid of their old ways of polluting the environment and have installed solar cooking systems.

The Saibaba Ashram at Shirdi in Maharashtra commissioned its giant solar cooking system in 2009. The kitchen complex of the Ashram has 73 parabolic dishes to capture the sun’s rays to run what is touted as the world’s largest solar cooking system to cook food for 50,000 devotees daily.

The system taps the sun’s rays to generate 3,600 kg of steam daily and saves nearly 100,000 kg of cooking gas annually. The system cost the Ashram Rs. 1.3 crore. Of this the Central Government’s non-renewable energy sector provided a Rs. 58 lakh as subsidy.

Steam cooking is clean, efficient and hygienic, especially when food is cooked for large numbers. The dish antennas concentrate solar rays on a giant reflector which transfers the heat to generate steam with temperature ranging between 550 and 600 degrees Celsius. With an automated sun tracking system, the dishes rotate continuously along with the movement of the sun, always concentrating the solar rays on the receivers. However, the dishes have to be manually rotated back each evening to the east in line with the rising sun for the next morning. As the solar system is hooked up with boilers, it can take care of a few non-sunshine hours too. But a back-up is needed for prolonged spell of rainy and cloudy days.

Emission reduction credits

At the solar-operated Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam kitchen at Tirupati where food is cooked daily for 15,000 pilgrims, the system installed in 2002 atop the shrine’s ‘Nitya Annadanam Canteen’ has adopted the solar cooking technology to drastically cut down on diesel fuel it was using till then.

The temple now sells the emission reduction credits it earns to a Swiss green energy technology investor firm, Good Energies Inc.

It not only takes care of energy and ecology but is also a source of revenue for the temple. The shrine now saves Rs. 17 lakh per annum. The system reduces the carbon dioxide emission by 1.2 tonnes per day.

The system, costing Rs. 1.1 crore, had its managing body, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Board, contributing half the amount while another half came as a subsidy from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The solar cooking system in both these shrines was installed by Gadhia Solar Energy Systems (GSES), a Gujarat-based company.

The initiative

Gadhia Solar was set up by entrepreneur Deepak Gadhia who brought the parabolic dishes-based solar concentrators (developed by Austrian scientist Wolfgang Scheffler) and began manufacturing solar cookers at his unit at Valsad near Mumbai.

The ingenuity behind the work was identified by Rajiv Gandhi while on a visit to Germany in 1984 when Gadhia was working on heat recovery and water harvesting system in a German University.

Responding to the invitation of the Indian Investment Office under the then PMO, Gadhia and team settled down in India.

For industrial canteens

While mass cooking facilities at several shrines gave them a big break, they also set up such facilities for industrial canteens at IBM, Bangalore; Sanghi Industries, Hyderabad; Pricol Industries, Coimbatore; and public sector companies such as GACL and GSFC and also at several residential schools, Defence establishments and hospitals.

Says Gadhia, “ Temples were more open to idea of using heavenly energy for cooking, as they also had large numbers coming in for prasad. These systems are more viable there. But once the systems were installed, we soon moved on to other target groups.”

These cooking/heating facilities show the way India should go in tapping new energy sources as the country’s current installed capacity of 147,458 MW is still eight per cent short of the demand of power.

Demand growing

Energy expert A. Ravindra says demand is growing by eight per cent annually and conventional fuels are getting exhausted. It was only in 2008 that investments in the renewable energy sector in India exceeded those in the fossil fuel sector.

Following the lead of the shrine at Tirumala, the Brahmakumari Instituteat Abu Road in Rajasthan installed a solar cooking system to cook food for 10,000 persons daily in 2005.

Rishi Valley Residential School at Madanapalle, 220 km east of Bangalore, has also installed a solar cooking system for its kitchen which prepares food for 500 inmate-students.

The School’s Dining Manager Harindran says the system serves them for 300 sunny days and saves them nearly Rs. 2 lakh annually on cooking gas.

The Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore is also generating power through biogas plants and recycling the wastewater within their premises.

Other applications

Gadhia’s company has developed several applications for solar concentrators (besides cooking) such as for wastewater evaporation, air-conditioning, desalination, heating and cooling, solar incinerators for bio-medical waste for hospitals, solar crematoriums, solar driers etc. Solar systems for housing colonies and blocks are amenable to multi-tasking and can be used for heating water for bathing, for preparing drinking water (pasteurisation), desalination, steam cooking, air-conditioning and for power generation with micro-turbines.

“By doing such projects we reduce the cost of products for individuals. It is similar to having a central TV antenna instead of every household having its own antenna.

It reduces the cost and improves the efficiency and optimises the use of systems,” observes Deepak Gadhia.

The possibilities

India is blessed with abundant sunshine which offers ample opportunity to tap solar energy for the country’s growing needs. It is estimated that if solar panels were installed on only four per cent area of Thar desert in Rajasthan, India can generate power to the tune of 100,000 MW, about two-thirds of its present installed capacity. Thar desert sprawls over an area of nearly 200,000 sq. km.