Uttarakhand hills with solar power don’t prefer ‘taar wali bijli’

It was half past four in the evening when we reached Garbadhar. It took us about 4 hours and two flat tyres along the Kali river from Dharachulha to get there. The Border Roads Organization remained inactive that day as it was a Sunday. Otherwise, as we were told and as it was while we returned, workers were blasting the sides of these large, rocky mountains to lay good motorable roads and connect these far flung tiny hamlets to the rest of the maddening crowd.

Garbadhar was not our destination. It was the last village till where one can drive up to. I was really looking forward to the next bit of the journey. We had to trek uphill for about 3 kms to reach a village called Galaghat. The village is completely off the electricity grid. Not too far from there, are a couple of small hydro power projects and a 265 MW hydro power project being set up by the National Hydel Power Corporation. Nevertheless, from what we had heard, the village sustains its energy needs through solar power.

There was one tiny shack in Garbadhar that sold everything. Noodles, anda bhurji, chai, cigarettes, meat and hooch made out of rice. They don't charge for water. So we had a few cups of chai, noodles and what-not and proceeded uphill. My friend and I were clearly not the best of trekkers. He accompanied me through the entire trip to help me through with the Hindi I don't speak yet. We were also accompanied by a guide, Pramod Kumar, from the district headquarters of Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA) in Pithoragarh. Pramod was constantly at least half a kilometer ahead of us during the trek. He was either a fast walker or did not like us that much. We hurried behind.

After about a kilometer, we spotted few houses just off the trek route. These houses, made out of stone and slate, were so fine and honest. In a way to speak, they were righteous. I tell you, these houses had roots that sunk inside these mountains, breathed fresh air every day, and lived quietly. I quickly spotted those tiny solar panels on their roofs and we decided to meet the family inside. Namasthe! We explained our intrusion and the lady accepted us politely.

There was goat skin in the front porch and another solar panel beside it gobbling the last bit of radiations before dusk. We delved immediately. These few houses were apparently part of Galaghat which was still a few kilometers away. They had received solar home lighting systems from UREDA at a subsidized price of Rs 3000 about a year ago. The systems were working fine and she dusted the panels once in a while. She also informed us that every family in the village had made use of the opportunity to light up their houses and get rid of the high costs of kerosene. She ushered us inside and there was a flat screen television! They could use it for two hours during the day if they wanted another 3 hours of light at night. I was curious about their source of income. She mumbled about a tiny patch to grow vegetables that she manages and her husband was apparently unemployed. The other houses too had a similar setup (although without the flat screen television) and one CFL lamp was left outside which acted like a street light for this little community. I asked them if they were happy with their energy source and if they really wanted the grid to be extended. “If the television could be switched on for longer periods using solar power it would more than suffice, unless taar waale bijli can offer something more”

We resumed our trek up to Galaghat. Six halts, two streams, and a flock of sheep later, we spotted a cluster of houses. At least now we had a visible target. We reached the village in sometime and just remained exhausted when one of the villagers was right up in front of us waiting for us to say something. We eventually did. His name was Prem Singh. He had bought his solar home lighting system in 2010 for Rs. 3000 from UREDA under the Remote Village Electrification Programme by the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy. He also had to pay Rs 300 to get the batteries transported on a mule from Garbadhar as UREDA delivers the goods only till this point due to lack of a motorable road further. Every villager has taken this opportunity to purchase the system that year. There are about 52 families in the village right now. Families could not afford to build their individual houses hence 3-4 families would live together in slightly larger houses and have ample number of lighting systems for each household. Every house uses a solar charge controller to connect the system to a television which receives its signal through a satellite dish. Households owned mostly three electrical applications – 11W CFL lamp, a mobile phone and a television. An important aspect that people were most certainly unaware was the price of the replacement battery.

We were offered to stay the night over at one of the villager's houses. For the first time in my life, I spent an evening using solar powered CFL lamps without having an alternative. We charged our mobile phones as well. I asked Prem Singh if they used any other electrical appliances. I asked him if they required motor pumps to facilitate irrigation. He said it would be not make any sense for a motor pump as there is water flowing downhill all year. Pipes need to be connected with taps at the other end to control the flow of water. Hand pumps also helped. The villagers did not really want much more electricity. We proceeded further the next morning to the next village, Bung Bung, and headed back to Dharachulha the next day.

How much does it cost to extend the grid to these places? Does it make economic sense to keep extending the grid to remote areas with the current power deficit at hand? The nearest substation from Galaghat is at Tawaghat which is 32 km from there. Even if the prices are going to be subsidized at the time of delivery why waste so much in the budget when there is a cheaper alternative? It is difficult to setup community solar power plants in hilly terrain due to the manner in which houses are dispersed in large areas. Wouldn't larger modules of solar photo voltaic systems on rooftops be much more feasible? The recent Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission suggests that India could leap frog in areas where there is no electricity to solar power. Galaghat is definitely one of those places that could fall under this. However serious efforts are being made under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyuktaran Yojana to extend the grid to these places. Once the BRO lays roads from Garbadhar, efforts will be made by the Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Limited to distribute power to these areas. There is a need to understand energy requirements and identify the best available sources rather than sticking to the old school grid power everywhere.