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In Bihar, solar-powered mini grids are slowly transforming livelihoods

In Derni Bazar, about 70 km from Bihar’s capital Patna, a private school with about 400 children, reeled under darkness for long. The frequent power outages restricted teachers from holding evening classes. Excessive heat in the cramped classrooms made the children restless, often distracting them from studying. But this has changed in the past one year when the school got access to an alternate source of electricity through a solar-powered mini-grid that was set up in the area. Now, when there is a power cut, the school automatically switches to the mini-grid back-up.

A mini-grid is a smaller electricity generation plant that runs on solar power and acts as a solution to those who have no access or unreliable access to the national grid.

“Children would get impatient as soon as the electricity went out. Summers were the worst,” says Ankit Singh, director of the National Public School that takes children up to class VIII. While the school hours are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the extra classes between 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. would go empty during a power outage, which could last for anywhere between two to seven hours or sometimes even more.

With access to electricity now, the teachers have noticed that attendance has gone up. “Our classrooms are very tiny. But with the little daylight, students would struggle to read from the board,” says Aniruddh Yadav, who teaches English and Science. He said the school would earlier hire diesel generators on rent only during the examinations.

“But now, we not only have tube lights and fans running as per our requirement, but we also have a smart class where nursery children are shown animated rhymes on a television screen for better learning,” he says. The monthly bill for the government supply for the school was ₹300 on an average. The bill for alternate mini-grid back-up ranges between ₹700 to ₹1,500 a month. “It is still better than renting the expensive generators,” says Mr. Singh.

In 2018, the Bihar government claimed to have achieved 100% electrification of willing households. Yet, a large number of households and businesses continue to depend on diesel generators for their daily requirement. With an aim to provide reliable access to power, The Rockefeller Foundation started Smart Power Initiative (SPI) in 2015 focussing on Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand and has set up more than 220 rural solar-powered mini-grids since then, including the one in Derni, which now has over 100 users.

A few metres away from the school, carpenter Suresh Kumar Sharma (39), has doubled his business, purchased more electrical tools and has even hired two men to work with him. “All these years, I have mostly used handheld, non-electrical tools to do the woodwork. Diesel generators would become expensive and I would use it only when there were more orders”, said Mr. Sharma, who makes everything from sofa and chairs to doors and window panels.

“With access to the power from Tara Urja (the non-profit that operates the mini-grid), I now use electrical machines only. From ₹300-₹500 a day, I have managed to increase my earnings to ₹700 to ₹900 per day by taking more orders and delivering faster,” he says. His diesel generator expenses were about ₹4,000 to ₹6000. Instead, he now pays an average of ₹2,000 per month for the electricity from the mini-grid.

One of the most recent mini-grids set up under the Smart Power Initiative is in Parsa, a few km from Derni. The mini-grid has 49 users so far. One of them is eye surgeon Dr. Ajit Kumar who runs the Shiv Jyoti Eye Hospital where he carries out an average of 50 to 60 procedures daily, the highest being cataract surgeries.

“I have always had generator back-up but having an alternate power supply has brought relief in terms of money,” says Dr. Kumar whose first bill for the mini-grid electricity supply was ₹3,200. “This was much less than the ₹15,000 that I spend monthly on the generator,” he says, adding that the savings will help him bring more facilities in the hospital that now has floor beds for patients. “My patients also don’t have to bear the noise made by the generator,” he says.

President of The Rockefeller Foundation, Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, who recently toured these villages says lack of reliable access to low-cost electricity constrains growth and labour productivity improvements. “You cannot just have diesel generation everywhere, it is far too expensive, far too dirty, far too cumbersome, far too complicated and it crushes real inclusive economic development,” he says in a chat with The Hindu.

The Foundation recently entered into a joint venture with Tata Power to address energy poverty and to reach out to nearly 25 million people. “Our first plant under the JV should be up in December,” says the Foundation’s senior vice-president Ashvin Dayal adding that their concentration is on places with most unelectrified households and businesses. “We have started with Bihar, UP and Jharkhand but we are certainly more interested in Assam, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh,” he says.

(The writer was in Bihar at the invitation of The Rockefeller Foundation)

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 2:49:14 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/in-bihar-solar-powered-mini-gridsare-slowly-transforming-livelihoods/article30315028.ece