Solar energy takes off in Tamil Nadu

Posted: 18 October 2002

Author: Lalitha Sridhar

Tamil Nadu is setting the pace in solar energy use in India. Indeed, this south Indian state accounts for two thirds of the total non-conventional energy used in the country, thanks in part to strong state support. Lalitha Sridhar reports.

For two years running Tamil Nadu's Energy Development Agency (TEDA) has won an award for its outstanding awareness of energy conservation. And its promotion of green energy begins at home: all the fans, lighting and electrical systems in one floor of its office building are solar powered.

Twenty-three other government buildings in Tamil Nadu also meet their power needs from the sun, while in various parts of the state streetlights, domestic lanterns, water heating systems, public lighting systems in remote hilly areas, home lighting systems, solar photo-voltaic pump sets, sprayers, solar air heaters, cookers and community TV sets, are all solar-powered.

India as a whole, faces a shortfall of approximately 40,000 MW of power annually. But its thermal power plants release huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; large hydroelectric power dams are ecologically suspect, and nuclear reactors are double-edged swords. Consequently, non-conventional energy sources are an urgent and critical need.

Huge potential

The government estimates India's Solar Photo-Voltaic energy potential at 22MW/sq km. Of this, a little over 10 per cent - 2.24 MW - has been harnessed constructively. Within this small percentage is a growing list of efficient applications - solar refrigerators, solar radios, even solar hearing aids, as well as good old calculators and cookers. The world's first solar-powered crematorium, set up in Gujarat, will save about 600 pounds of firewood for each body cremated.

Part of the reason for Tamil Nadu's success, particularly in the area of solar power, is the abundant availability of sunshine. But that is only half the reason - the administration has actually made an effort to encourage a form of energy that, in the long-run, is cheaper and easier to service than conventional sources.

Studying by solar

Across the state, many voices chorus the same sentiment. Coimbatore has pioneered a community solar cooker. In Salem, Pudukottai and Cuddalore districts, simple solar panels fitted to several rural thatched huts to ensure basic lighting and farmers in Pudur carry solar lanterns with sunny smiles.

A doctor is Devakottai uses solar lamps over his operating table. A gas service owner in Coimbature prefers solar lamps to keep his godowns safe and fire free. Five government colleges and hostels have installed solar water heaters. The Biotech Park for Women at Siruseri uses solar powered streetlights.

At the Adi Dravidar Boys Hostel in Yercaud, where a water heating system was installed; the use of gas cylinders fell from 12 to 6 - a saving of Rs 1,400 per day (US$30). In six months the cost of the system had been recovered. Even after a 5 per cent annual maintenance cost, there will actually be monetary gains to the consumer since solar panels have a life of at least 10 years.

Frustrated with productivity being held ransom to power cuts and equipment breakdown because of violent voltage fluctuations, solar energy consumers are more than willing to establish a connection over which they can exercise better control.

Priya Venkatesh's little house in a far corner of Chennai's suburban Nanganallur, is a shining example. "We are living way outside Corporation limits; apart from bad roads and open drainage, we have frequent and unpredictable power cuts, or terrible voltage fluctuations. But now, my children can study in peace and it is entirely because of the solar panels we installed."

Remote areas

Solar energy is most viable for people living in remote areas. A farmhouse located in the rural heartland of Tamil Nadu can achieve electricity conventionally only if millions of rupees are spent on laying cables.

As yet, cost remains a problem. A whopping 80 per cent of the potential output is consumed in conversion losses, as the sun's energy is changed into electricity and light. Equipment is expensive too - a solar water heater costs Rs 20,000 ($400), while panels and batteries of 4KW capacity cost about 1.8 million rupees ($36,735). One unit of solar power costs a daunting Rs 10 ($.20), but, insists Kasi Viswanathan, "It is only the initial outlay which is substantial. Afterwards, it is virtually maintenance free. Only the batteries need to be checked and regular dusting has to be done. Besides, generous subsidies from the government reduce the capital investment."

Solar water pumps are subsidised to the tune of Rs 110 ($2.24) per watt of power while there is a concession of about 30 per cent on a domestic lighting system. By ensuring definite savings on electricity bills, the infrastructure pays for itself in a short while. Under the Plan, mobile vans dispense information, sanction loans, offer subsidies and procure devices for the new consumers.

On the darker side, some solar street lighting systems in the hilly districts of Nammakkal, Trichy, Dharmapuri, Nilgiris and Ramnad districts are not functioning properly - either because departmental or panchayat funds are not available for maintenance or simply because nobody has taken responsibility. But, privately-owned and maintained systems are continuing to do well. It is now proposed that a team be identified from the nearby villages of the hilly districts to maintain civic solar amenities.

And, it is not as if conventional energy comes without high costs and other problems. The upside of solar energy is that it is simply wired to the skies - no power bills, no pilferage, and no pollution.

This article was reproduced with kind permission by the Women's Feature Service (14 October 2002).