Pico hydro systems powering tropical forests of India

Green Business Canada welcomes Siddha Mahajan Lavania as our new Asia Editor and correspondent. A clean energy technology and policy professional, she is going to introduce us to the evolving clean green business and lifestyle from this region of the world that majority would not get to experience.

Enjoy and learn about the stories, innovation, magic and journey.
Asia houses nearly 4.5 billion people with more than 35% of that population vulnerable to climate change, in addition to already existing food and energy shortfalls. Where the world is joining hands on addressing the impacts of climate change, many leaders and specialists are also looking for solutions to provide sustainable energy access to the deprived communities across the world. But some questions that concern the scientist community are – which is the best solution? Would the system sustain for long? Would it bring a positive change in their lives? Will they be able to afford it?

To find an answer to some of these concerns, I bring a real life story from far remote location amidst the dense rainforests along the west coast of India – one of the “hottest hotspots” of the world. With mountainous landscape, several endemic species, perennial river streams and no concrete roads, it is impossible to visit the heart of the woodland without any forest residents. Infrastructure is poorly developed, except few small huts made of bricks and unfinished clayey roads that can only support walking or cycling.

It is impossible for any electricity pole to stand, let alone sustainable electrification within the forest. People living in the woods are mostly farmers or low-wage workers who travel to and fro to cities for work walking miles before finding any public transportation for further distance. They meet their energy needs mostly through kerosene oil (bought from town). Electricity is unreliable electricity for almost 9-10 months in a year.

It was during one of my field visits in the region I met Sambath, one of the residents of the forest village. He lives with his mother, wife and two daughters of age 14 and 17. An engineer by qualification, he is a farmer and earns a livelihood through crop farming like cashews, areca nut, cardamom. His family, like other forest residents, collects fallen woods for cooking food and purchase kerosene oil to meet indoor lighting needs.

The cost of kerosene doubles during heavy rainfall season with no electricity supply, making it difficult for his family to afford.
Bringing a sustainable lighting solution for his family and forest community motivated Sambath to come together with a local technology supply company where he initially worked – a technology that is locally fathomable, affordable and most importantly sustainable. In 2006 they started to tap hydro power from perennially flowing streams at pico-level – a capacity of up to 5 kW. Challenges were two-fold: supporting system cost of 2,100 CAD and convincing village people to adopt it. While exploring market of the system, they learned about the Federal capital cost support scheme, which covered 80% of the total cost, while remaining 20% was taken care as a soft loan of small interest from a locally run bank, where many farmers already had accounts.

Today after 11 years over 500 families like Sambath have installed this system of 1kW capacity (with 90% efficiency) across the forest having access to light during heavy rains and night hours. It not only meets their lighting needs but also generate sufficient amount to run a television or other home appliance. Electric fencing is also powered through these systems to keep away the forest tigers. The community is not only jubilating about access the power but also a healthier indoor environment, and fewer eye problems cases, especially among women. Even children can study during dark hours at night. This resulted out of reduced consumption of kerosene. And, all of this with no harm to the stream and its water!

This system has not only brightened people’s lives but also gave livelihood opportunity to some of the forest residents by becoming part of the business chain. Knowing its potential, the forest residents are now exploring its capacity to run leaf-plating machine to make leaf plates out of areca nut leaves that have huge market during wedding seasons and in the temples.
One small yet life changing opportunity found its way to meet people’s need locally.

The answer to finding sustainable lifestyle cannot uniform across the globe. Knowledge of geography and local needs as well as community’s participation has a major role to play in finding a sustainable solution.