Solar Power Push Lights Up Options for India’s Rural Women

12 Feb 2018

In her village of Komalia, the fog swirls so thick at 7 a.m. that Akansha Singh can see no more than 15 meters ahead. But the 20-year-old is already cycling to her workplace, nine kilometers away.

Halfway there she stops for two hours at a computer training center, where she’s learning internet skills. Then she’s off again, and by 10 a.m. reaches the small garment manufacturing plant where she stitches women’s clothing for high-end brands on state-of-the-art electric sewing machines. 

Solar energy powers most of her day – the computer training center and the 25-woman garment factory run on solar mini-grid electricity – and clean power has given her personal choice as well, she said. 

If the mini-grid system had not been put in place, Singh – a recent college graduate without funds to pursue training as a teacher, the only job open to women in her village – would have had no alternative but to marry, she said. 

In fact, “I would already be married off,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Today, however, she earns 4,500 rupees ($70) a month working on solar-powered sewing machines. She uses part of that to pay 300 rupees ($4.70) a month for her computer education class – and is planning to start a computer training center closer to home. 

Like her, most of the women at the factory earn between 2,500 and 4,500 rupees ($39- $70) a month, which has helped their families eat better, get children to school and pay for healthcare, they said. 

“With a month’s earning alone we can buy new bicycles for ourselves and our school-going children,” Bandana Devi, a mother of four, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as she looked up from her sewing. 

She bought one for her 12-year-old daughter, she said, and her 6-year-old rides pillion with her to the school, 2 km away. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a $2.5 billion plan to electrify every Indian household by 2019 – a huge task in a country where close to 240 million people still have no access to electrical power. 

Solar power – including the use of small local grids - is likely to be a big part of the push, with 60 percent of new connections expected to be to renewable power, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

STABLE POWER, MORE CONTRACTS 

In a clearing in an acacia plantation, the more than 140 solar panels that make up the Kamlapur mini-grid are being cleaned early in the morning.

The 36-kilowatt plant, set up by the for-profit OMC Power Private Ltd.(formerly Omnigrid Micropower Company) in 2015, distributes solar energy over 2.4 kilometers of power lines to 70 households, two telecommunications towers, the clothing manufacturing unit and several other small businesses. 

Solar mini-grids usually rely on one or two large users of power – often mobile phone towers – to provide a stable base revenue for the system. But as solar electricity becomes available in areas beyond the traditional grid, power-hungry small businesses are emerging that could become anchor users. 

Kamlapur’s garment factory, for instance, consumes 10 kilowatts of power each day – the same as the telecom towers, said Ketan Bhatt, an OMC official in Uttar Pradesh state. 

The state in 2016 became India’s first to put in place a mini-grid policy, recognizing private solar companies as legitimate players in India’s push to get power to all. 

Company owners, in turn, say solar mini-grids – which can be more reliable than the unstable grid power their competitors rely on – is giving them a business advantage. 

“Because the power supply is steady, we are regularly able to deliver on contract deadlines, which in turn enhances our reputation to bag more contracts,” said Mohammad Riyaz, who set up the Kamlapur garment unit in 2016. 

Rohit Chandra, a co-founder of OMC, said he was seeing many solar power users moving beyond simply buying power for home lighting and appliances. Now, he said, they are harnessing solar energy for profit.

Reuters | http://www.reuters.com