From an early age, Santipada Gon Chaudhuri had sought ways to help poor Indians in rural areas, so when an electrical engineer was invited to visit his colleague’s Himalayan village in Herma in the early 1980s, he saw an opportunity this.
“I was amazed to see how the local communities lived in the dark after sunset,” recalls Chaudhuri, 71, who worked for the government in the northeastern state of Tripura.
“Some were using kerosene lamps, but even paraffin was not always easy to find. As I had the ability and position to try to empower them, it made me intervene,” he said.
The villages of Tripura are located in difficult, hilly areas, where Chaudhuri realized that it would be difficult to install power lines.
“But they had a lot of solar power,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an interview.
In 1983, he used government subsidies to install solar panels in 70 homes, as well as using public television and a water pump – the first time a city man could see electric light.
That small project produced a work dedicated to empowering the poor, in remote communities, a job that got Chaudhuri the chief of India’s “Solar Man”.
Today, more than 100 homes and businesses in Herma are illuminated by a new solar system, allowing citizens to be more productive while reducing their costly, polluting use of paraffin.
“Life in this village would have come to a complete halt after sunset. But with the light in our homes now, our children are studying until late at night,” said resident Sumoti Riyang, 33.
“Shops and business centers are always open in the evenings. We can work hard. All this brings us money,” he said.
At his Kolkata office, adorned with awards he has won since his first project nearly 40 years ago, Chaudhuri said he finds “great satisfaction” in seeing how solar energy has changed lives in Herma, involving citizens and the modern world.
Herma was the first nation in the country to receive solar power, and in 1989 Chaudhuri led the installation of solar technology in some 40 villages in northeastern India.
Four years later, he founded India’s first mid-range solar power station with a distribution network on Sagar Island in Sundarbans, home to one of the world’s largest mangrove forests, providing 100 homes with electricity.
The project was considered a development at a time when solar technology was “only confined to laboratories and imaging,” said Samrat Sengupta of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a nonprofit think tank.
In 2000, more than 400,000 people in the villages around Sundarbans Park used solar energy, with a combination of mini-grids and solar systems.
At the time, the region had the highest solar power in the world, Chaudhuri said.
The project won him the Ashden Award, known as the “Green Oscars,” and the German Euro Solar Award.
In 2006, it also promoted then-Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam invites Chaudhuri to design solar panels captured at the presidential palace.
“Chaudhuri’s work is a great example of empowering indigenous communities through solar energy,” said Arun Tripathi, director-general of the National Institute of Solar Energy, an independent organization under the Department of Renewable Energy.
In 2009, Chaudhuri installed the first grid-connected solar plant in West Bengal in the Jamuria region, a 2-megawatt (MW) project serving 5,000 families.
This was hailed as “environmental development” because, until then, solar power was limited to remote areas without electricity, CSE’s Sengupta said.
Jamuria was the first place to use the sun to replace coal power in the grid, bringing clean energy to the general area, he said, noting that reducing the amount of coal burning in the area by 2,000 kg (4,400 kilograms) per hour and reducing carbon emissions.
The Floating Solar
Sengupta and others say Chaudhuri’s work has helped pave the way for India’s National Solar Mission, which was established in 2010.
The initiative, which Chaudhuri negotiated, aimed to initially produce 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar power by 2022.
As it has already almost doubled that, India has set a new goal of 100GW.
But as the expansion of its solar power has improved, growing population and urbanization have made it difficult to find land for large-scale projects.
In response, Chaudhuri brought the first solar power station floating in India.
In 2014, after joining the nonprofit NB Institute for Rural Technology, of which he is now its director, he led the construction of a 10-kilowatt state-funded solar panel at a lake in New Town, Kolkata.
“Designing a floating panel structure and reinforcing it in a water body was a major challenge,” he said.
The project grew into a national program now producing more than 1,700MW of solar energy from floating panels in various coastal regions across the country.
Apart from its progress, India’s solar push has some limitations including high financial costs, land shortages, and the need for hot weather, said Partha S. Bhattacharyya, former chairman of Coal India Limited, the world’s largest coal producer and investor in solar energy projects.
“Thermal power is reliable and consistent, due to the high stability of the grid,” he added.
Chaudhuri and his team are currently experimenting with solar water pumps that push the water into a high reservoir that can generate hydropower using small generators, supplying areas where needed.
“The very concept of solar energy has changed from providing light-only to controlling carbon emissions,” Chaudhuri said. “It’s time to dump her and move on
Source: Global Citizen