A solar revolution

Written by Kirtika Suneja | Rasul Bailay | Updated: Jan 2 2012, 03:58am hrs
For years, erratic to non-existent power supply hampered students in most schools in Leh and surrounding villages from freely using computers. Not anymore, as most of these schools now have their own captive power, thanks to micro solar power projects in the region.

In the sunny Leh-Ladakh region, which sees about 300 days of sunshine each year, solar power is a revolution that is fast gaining momentum. The regions quest with solar energy started in the 1990s, but it is in recent years that the idea got really hot.

Today, companies like Tata BP Solar, Moser Baer, other small and medium solar companies and even start-ups are making a beeline for Ladakh to tap the business opportunity there.

And, as the cold and arid desert region embraces solar and renewable energy as its main energy source, in the years to come, schools, hospitals, government offices, homes and hotels throughout the length and breadth of Ladakh would adopt solar power. And not just for electricity, but for water heating to keep homes and hospitals warm in the harsh winter months and for even cooking, say at school hostels, among other uses.

As other energy forms are not viable, solar is the natural choice, considering that Ladakh is blessed with sunshine for more than 300 days in a year, besides low ambient temperature suited for photo-voltaic modules to operate at optimum efficiency, says K Subramanya, CEO, Tata BP Solar India Limited, which alone supplied more than 22,000 solar home lighting systems in 2010-11.

Currently, Tata BP Solar is working on 87 different solar power plants with capacities ranging from as small as 5 kilowatt peak (kWp) to 1.2 mega watt (mw) in various parts of Ladakh. Tata BP Solar has already supplied solar products to 47 solar power plants of 10 kWp capacity since 2009.

The projects were executed under challenging circumstances given the rough terrain, transportation hurdles, extreme temperatures and limited local resources, adds Subramanya.

Rival Moser Baer is in the process of installing about 15 such solar power projects in the range of 15 kWp to 100 kWp in the region.

Abhinav Kanchan, a spokesperson for Moser Baer, says the company has already commissioned three ground mounted projects at Chushul, Thoise and Fukche in Ladakh and work is in progress on other sites. The ground mounted solar hybrid systems are placed on the ground surface and come with a battery back-up.

Kanchan adds that these assignments require high technical expertise and advanced system reliability to work in extreme conditions. The places where they are

installing the systems have an average temperature of minus 5 degrees to 6 degrees Centigrade and are at an altitude of around 18,000 feet, witnessing a wind speed of 90 kmph. The battery and inverter component used in the project are specially designed to work at low temperatures.

And behind this success is Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency (LREDA), which originated in 2000 from a non-conventional energy cell of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council that studied and advised the local government to harness

solar energy in the mountainous

region. The idea was to cost-effectively tap solar power in a region that generally witnesses clear skies for most part of the year. And, within a year of its formation, the group undertook the extensive task to provide solar home lighting systems in villages in the Leh district.

In 2001, the whole district of Leh achieved 100% electrification, but costly and polluting diesel-powered projects were at the fulcrum of the overall power supply. Jigmet Takpa, director of LREDA, says 18 mw, or almost three-fourth of Ladakhs total electricity generation of 25 mw electricity at present, is diesel-powered. Takpas mission is to replace all of it by

renewable energy in the next five years. Diesel is highly polluting and its cost is extremely high, says Takpa. In the next five years, the whole of Ladakh will be electrified by hydro, solar or geothermal generated renewable power, he adds.

The group received a shot in the arm in April 2010, when a Union Cabinet committee on infrastructure approved R473 crore for Ladakh after a detailed study by the renewable energy ministry of the two districts of Leh and Kargil found that solar energy can be tapped as an effective means of energy source in the region, that is otherwise solely dependent on diesel, kerosene and firewood. After consulting with various stakeholders, including the locals, government and army officers serving in the area, the ministry sought financial assistance of R473 crore for renewable energy initiatives in Ladakh. The plans are to spend bulk of the funds on building about 300 solar power plants ranging anywhere between 5 and 100 kWp; to provide 2,000 home lighting systems and about 40,000 thermal systems ranging from water heating, solar cooker, solar heating of buildings to even solar greenhouses. The project is expected to be completed by 2013 and the initiative alone is expected to save 200 lakh litres of diesel a year in the region.

With the initiative, a flood of solar products firms have set up offices in the region and are making everything, from local monasteries, the airport terminal building, hospitals to homes, solar-powered. Schools, even in far-flung areas bordering China have continuous electricity and their computers run non-stop thanks to solar power.

As a nodal agency of the renewable energy ministry, the LREDA team of technologists now carries out research on solar power systems that are best suited for the region's resources and conditions.

In May last year, LREDA organised an exhibition in Leh to showcase and to educate locals about the benefits of solar power, which received an overwhelming response. The word-of-the-mouth advertising was followed by commercial spots by companies on local television and radio channels.

The idea seems to have paid off, and today LREDAs office is flooded with requests and on an average, 80 applicants visit its office daily. Also, the solar products are subsidised by 50% for schools, guest houses and individual homes and by 90% for government offices, thanks to the overall ministry fund.

The agency has so far installed solar water heating systems of about 6,00,000 litres capacity till October 2011 and is expected to add another 5,00,000 litres capacity by August this year.

One satisfied customer is Abdul Gafur Steri, who shelled out R62,000 to install a 500-litre capacity water heater for his guest house, Pamir Holiday Home, in Leh in October 2011. He says he opted for the solar heating system as it was not only environmental friendly but also cost-effective. Its a one-time investment and now we no longer rely on expensive and scarce firewood to heat the water, he says. And like Steri, there are many others in the cold and arid region who are looking forward to a warm and bright year and future powered by solar energy.