Solar microgrids light up remote Jharkhand villages

Spreading light:Students at the primary school in Birgaon and, right, a man showing the lamp in his house.Special arrangement

Spreading light:Students at the primary school in Birgaon and, right, a man showing the lamp in his house.Special arrangement  

New policy hopes to expand their reach and spread in State

When the lights went on in Birgaon for the first time on a chilly winter evening late last December, it allowed the government to announce in April this year that every village in India now had electricity. Every home in Birgaon actually has power, thanks to a solar microgrid set up in the village centre and wired into every home.

By government definition, a village is electrified if 10% of its homes have a power connection. This means that while all its villages are officially electrified, 42% of Jharkhand households — the highest in the country — do not have power, yet. Now, the State government is mulling a new policy, encouraging solar microgrids, even in villages that are already connected to the traditional grid.

Powering change

Birgaon is proof of change. This tiny tribal hamlet — home to about 100 people in 20 households — lies in the hilly Gumla District of Jharkhand. It is one of the 249 remote villages which got solar microgrids last year, thanks to a Rs. 110-crore project by the Jharkhand Renewable Energy Agency (JREDA), as part of the Centre’s Deendayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana. Private solar provider Azure Power won the bid to build and maintain microgrids in 11 villages in Gumla and Hazaribagh districts.

The 20 photovoltaic panels glint in the scorching sun, out of place amid the old mud houses of Birgaon. Power lines snake out of a shed which stores the batteries and inverter.

“We are on the elephant route to the Basa river and they rampage through the village, mostly before harvest,” says Srisai Kawar, the villager who donated the land on which the microgrid stands. A few street lights dot the common areas of the village, while each home has three LED bulbs and two power sockets. “We haven’t had any elephant attacks since the light came,” he adds.

For most of the 25 children at the local primary school the arrival of electricity means they can occasionally watch films on the village’s only television. For Dahari Kawal, a Class 6 student, it allows her to study at night, leaving the day for other chores. She hopes to continue her education at a high school in a bigger village five km away. “I want to become a teacher,” she says.

With free power, villagers save Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 per month otherwise spent on kerosene. They are willing to pay the nominal tariff of Rs. 30 per month.

‘The only way’

When Azure Power’s deputy manager Bikash Kumar first reached Birgaon after a 200-km journey from Ranchi, he was appalled by the last stretch. “I wasn’t sure how we would get the components of the grid over that bumpy track,” he says. To exacerbate, to reach Hisir, another project village, Azure was forced to build a five-km road through dense jungles and across three rivers. “These kinds of villages will be almost impossible to reach with regular transmission lines. Microgrids are the only way,” he says.

JREDA director Niranjan Kumar has bigger plans. “We are coming out with a new solar microgrid policy in a month. People want quality, 24/7 power. If a microgrid can provide that, they are willing to pay,” Mr. Kumar adds. He cites a pilot project where 10 villages are paying up to Rs. 10 per unit for solar microgrids that power small enterprises: rice hullers, oil extractors, wheat mills and poultry farms.

“When the government says that all villages are electrified, it’s not really true,” says Gabriel Pujur, pradhan of Galu, another electrified village.

He points to Pakartoli, a village on the government’s “electrified” list, where only 21 out of the 114 households actually have power according to government data.

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