How the Sundarbans missed an opportunity to harness solar energy

This is an informative and insightful piece on how the Sundarbans seem to have missed the golden opportunity of making the most out of solar energy to meet its electricity requirements.

With ample access to solar energy, can the Sundarbans amplify it's usage to meet the bulk of its electricity requirements?/ Image: Pixabay

 

 

Solar rooftops on houses in Ghoramara, a rapidly eroding island at the mouth of Bay of Bengal in Sundarbans. The island doesn’t have grid-connected power and relies entirely on solar rooftops. Photo by Subhraji Sen/Mongabay.

“There are many advantages to having solar energy as a supplement to grid-connected power. First, it (Sundarbans) is a cyclone-prone area and power disruptions are routine every April-May-June,” Sujit Sardar, a resident of Rajat Jubilee village on Satjelia island in Lahiripur gram panchayat area, told Mongabay-India.

“And second, it helps keep the (conventional/grid-connected) electricity bills low. The lower the consumption, the lower the rate slab. Now that the state government has made quarterly consumption of electricity up to 75 units free, some families having solar alternatives are not paying for conventional power at all,” he said.

Using renewable sources of energy may also contribute to climate change mitigation goals, as it reduces the demand for conventional power, Bipul Sardar, a teacher at the Rajat Jubilee High School, said. The school has a rooftop solar system that helps in running lights, fans and computers in times of power cuts.

Sujit Sardar, a resident of Rajat Jubilee, Gosaba block, where a solar micro-grid installed by WWF India still operates. He said that the combination of solar and grid-connected power results in lower electricity bills. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.
Sujit Sardar, a resident of Rajat Jubilee, Gosaba block, where a solar microgrid installed by WWF India still operates. He said that the combination of solar and grid-connected power results in lower electricity bills. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.

In Satjelia island, the global non-profit World Wildlife Fund (WWF), set up four solar DC microgrids and one solar AC microgrid in villages, between 2011-12 and 2017. In 2020, in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan, the WWF had highlighted how, when the “major part of Sundarbans plunged in darkness even after two weeks of the disaster,” Satjelia island “stood out as an exception” as the “microgrids set up by WWF India held the fort and continued to serve communities in an important life-supporting way.” Sujit Sardar was one of the beneficiaries of the project.

However, Mongabay-India’s visit revealed that, as of March 2022, only the solar AC microgrid at Rajat Jubilee was functional while the four solar DC microgrids in other villages were defunct.

The microgrids that WWF set up at Annpur-Jamespur and Patharpara, both along the river bank, came up in 2017. But both have been lying defunct for the past couple of years, local residents alleged.

In Annpur-Jamespur, the batteries of the street lamps have been taken away by the installing agency, local residents said. In Patharpara, the owner of the land on which the solar panels are set up complained that their land had got caught up in a “useless mess.”

“We could have grown vegetables on this land. We could have kept bees,” said Namita Mondal, wife of Sudhangshu, owner of the land plot. “We want WWF to take the installations back and free our land,” she said.

She thinks that the project failed because it coincided with the arrival of conventional electricity (grid-connected) on the island. “Electricity came only a few months after this solar project started functioning. So, beneficiaries stopped paying the monthly subscription and the power supply was subsequently snapped. It became a useless asset,” said Mondal. Most of the neigbours have rooftop solar setups to fall back on.

A defunct micro-grid at Rajat Jubilee, Gosaba block, installed by WWF. The landowner Namita Mondal, worried about her property lying idle, said that the unit stopped operation after the arrival of grid-connected power. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.
A defunct microgrid at Rajat Jubilee, Gosaba block, installed by WWF. The landowner Namita Mondal, worried about her property lying idle, said that the unit stopped operation after the arrival of grid-connected power. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.

Absence of a policy

According to Anurag Danda, a social anthropologist and the director of the WWF’s Sundarbans programme, the failure of microgrids in the Sundarbans came as a result of a lack of policies. He told Mongabay-India that the only way to keep these assets functional was to get them connected to the grid.

“When people had not experienced electricity, a limited amount of electricity was good enough for them. The moment the grid came, they no longer had the limitations. Why should they pay for a limited supply thereafter? All such assets became redundant due to the lack of a policy in place,” Danda said. “The renewable power generating unit could have directly fed the grid, instead of supplying to individual households.”

Gon Chaudhuri echoed Danda. In fact, as early as 2011 Gon Chaudhuri argued in favour of connecting all off-grid power stations to grid energy, for the sake of sustainability. That was well before grid-connected power came to any of the Sundarbans islands. The government did start installing grid-connected solar facilities from 2010-11 but in government establishments in and around Kolkata. There was no initiative to connect the existing installations with grids.

“I think it’s only due to (lack of) policy that these things are not functional,” Gon Chaudhuri told Mongabay-India, “Taking the grid to those villages was not the right decision. It would have been better had the grid and solar been combined, i.e. the solar plant feeding the grid.”

Grid infrastructure providing electricity to Gangasagar island in Sundarbans. Before the arrival of grid-connected power, Sundarban’s islands depended on solar micro-grids and solar rooftops. As solar micro-grids now lie defunct, experts say that the region missed an opportunity to harness the strengths of renewable energy. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.
Grid infrastructure providing electricity to Gangasagar island in Sundarbans. Before the arrival of grid-connected power, Sundarban’s islands depended on solar microgrids and solar rooftops. As solar microgrids now lie defunct, experts say that the region missed an opportunity to harness the strengths of renewable energy. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.

Both Danda and Gon Chaudhuri highlighted the aspect of developing a sense of ownership among community members as crucial to success. They said that the presence of thousands of individually-owned rooftop solar systems reflects how a similar sense of ownership had not been developed regarding the community assets.

While explaining why the Rajat Jubilee project survived while others failed, Danda said, “Here, of the two-year-schedule, one year and a half was invested to engage the community, to make them understand the nitty-gritty of maintenance and to make them own the power station. The remaining half-year was actually used to construct it.”

Gon Chaudhuri also highlighted the lack of maintenance of infrastructure. “The microgrid systems run smoothly for 6-7 years, following which the batteries and some other components need to be changed. But the WBREDA did not do that. They thought, why maintain solar infrastructure when the conventional grid has come? So, Sundarban missed a chance to reduce carbon footprint,” Gon Chaudhuri speculated.

The next big thing

Amidst such missed opportunities, Sundarbans is going to be the home to the country’s largest off-grid solar facility (250kW) at Ghoramara island, the only island where grid-connected power is yet to reach. It would cost the government a significant amount to take grid-connected power to that sinking and shrinking island – which is home to some 5,000 people – and therefore the government of India approved the solar project, said Gon Chaudhuri who is working with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur on the project.

“This power plant will work because there is no chance the grid will go there. At least for the next 10 years, when IIT-Kharagpur will be in charge of maintenance, this power plant will work properly. After that, some community-level programmes will have to come up and the IIT is to devise a system (to keep the project running),” Gon Chaudhuri said.

A woman passes by her house and a non-operational solar-powered street light at Ghoramara island. The house was damaged by cyclone Amphan in May 2020. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.
A woman passes by her house and a non-operational solar-powered street light at Ghoramara island. The house was damaged by cyclone Amphan in May 2020. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.

This article has been co-authored by Snigdhendu Bhattacharya and Subhrajit Sen. Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist and author writing on politics, policies, environmental and socio-economic issues and Subhrajit Sen is a Kolkata based documentary photographer, filmmaker, graphic designer, and educator. The article has been republished from Mongabay.

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