It was almost like that light bulb scene from the Hindi movie, Swades where the old woman breaks into a toothless grin when electricity comes into her home.
We thought it would be something like that in this small village of Dharnai, Bihar. The village was in darkness for thirty years but then “light” came on 20th July 2014 when the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, amidst a lot of fanfare inaugurated the plant. Built at an initial cost of around Rs. 3 crore, it shot into limelight as the first village in India to be fully powered by solar energy. It had the capacity of 100 kilowatt and the promise was that it would revolutionize lives and power 450 homes of the 2,400 residents, 50 commercial operations, 60 street lights in the village, two schools, a training centre and a health care facility. There was even a battery backup which ensured electricity is available around the clock.
The truth? The ‘game changing’ solar power plant site is now a temporary cattle shed; after the initial fanfare of the inauguration, the solar batteries stopped working, as there were no repairs or maintenance. Three years after all the show and tamasha, the solar plant stopped working. At the same time, the village got connected to thermal power and that became the default choice – solar power cost was Rs.9/unit while thermal was Rs.3unit. Plus, while using solar, villagers were instructed to not use ‘heavy-duty’ gadgets like TV, fridge and motors vis-à-vis the thermal power, where there were no restrictions. It was thus a no-brainer – every single household shifted to thermal and the solar panels on rooftops became spider-web collectors or bird nests.
The Center for Environment and Energy Development (CEED) refuses to look at this as a ‘failed’ project as they say that the mere set-up of the solar plant brought about a social transformation. Plus, it proved that decentralised solar projects can work in such areas.
But the biggest lesson learnt – for a solar plant to work and power-up a community, the off-grid project needs to be necessarily connected with the main power grid.
The sad part – its only the battery which needs to be replaced; the rest of the infrastructure is fine yet that one simple thing just does not get done. This is the message we send across while we talk big about renewable and clean energy.