Twenty-three per cent of 586,000 villages and 56 per cent of 138 million households in India do not have electricity. Efforts to electrify these villages through a conventional grid have remained futile, opening up solar energy as an attractive option in these areas.
Electrification, especially in distant and hilly terrains, is not always feasible, technically or economically. Apart from high transmission and distribution losses, there is a drop of voltage at the end of a long line and also a low load factor since the bulk of the households do not have purchasing power to avail an electric connection.
Therefore, decentralised power generation systems based on solar energy prove to be a blessing in such areas, for meeting both the residential and production sector needs, reports Grassroots Features.
In a unique experiment, the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) in Andhra Pradesh trained four illiterate women from a self-help group KAMALA on solar energy technologies in partnership with the Barefoot College, Tilonia, in Rajasthan.
The experiment subsequently demonstrated the feasibility of fabrication, installation, repair and maintenance of solar lighting systems by enabling management, control and ownership of such a sophisticated technology in the hands of poor people.
The people were also in charge of producing solar lanterns, home lighting systems, streetlights, and water pumps. Later these women formed and registered a society called the Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association (WBSEA).
NIRD has evolved a concept of building capabilities among the local community to assemble, install, operate and maintain solar energy systems.
The four women who were sent for a six-month training programme to the Barefoot College Chennamma, Zahida, Yellamma and Kalavathi were from Rajendranagar village, which is close to the NIRD centre.
Chenamma, 45, is married with four children and worked as a stonecutter, earning less than Rs 1,000 a month. Zahida, 35, is a divorcee with four children and worked as a housemaid, earning under Rs 500 a month. Yellamma has worked as a stonecutter, is illiterate with three children. Her husband, too, works as a stonecutter. Kalavathi, also illiterate, is married with three daughters and was working as a housemaid for Rs 500 monthly wages.
The four women left for Rajasthan in July 2004 and returned in December 2004 as qualified solar engineers. They could fabricate a charge controller, invertors, solar lanterns and lights, install fixed solar units in individual houses and establish a rural electronic workshop through sign language and practical work, as they were not well-versed in the local language.
With their newly acquired expertise, they installed a five-kilowatt solar power plant in the Rural Technology Park. They also set up solar panels, a battery bank and a rural electronic workshop without any assistance. And in May 2005, the Solar Power Plant was inaugurated.
The plant provided enough power supply to electrify 15 houses in the park, illuminating 45 lights of 18 watts, 29 lights of 11 watts and 20 streetlights of 11 watts each in the Rural Building Centre, besides computers, printers and coolers in the workshop.
Within six months of their return, on June 9, 2005, the first-ever Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association (WBSEA) was registered in Hyderabad and Chenamma became its first president. Zahida, the vice-president, was put in-charge of accounts, Yellamma made treasurer and Kalavathi, the general secretary.
Ever since the rural electronic workshop was established, WBSEA has fabricated and sold 100 solar lanterns to NIRD and the public.
Fifty solar lanterns were also produced and marketed by them. WBSEA gives a guarantee for two years, which ensures a follow-up and after-sales services, unavailable if procured from the multinational companies.
Electrified by their success, the tribal welfare department of the Andhra Pradesh government sanctioned a solar project in August 2005 to light up 132 households in Thamingula and Pusalepalem villages in Visakhapatnam district.