As India's schools start to use more technology, solar power and biogas are helping keep the lights on and make use of waste, enabling underprivileged students to do better
ANANTHAGIRI HILLS, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tenth grade exams are a couple of months off, and Gennu Labudu, a science teacher at Penakota village school in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, is expecting his class to do exceptionally well this time. Thanks to a solar photovoltaic (PV) mini-plant that produces and stores solar electricity in the school, Labudu’s students can now study even at night.
In the neighbouring village school in Zenabadu, a solar-powered motor pumps water day and night. It makes eight-year old pupil Laxmi Perikala very happy. The boarder can drink a glass of water whenever she wants, unlike in her village where she has to fetch it from a pond 40 steps below. “It is very difficult. Every time, I carried a pitcher, my neck would hurt,” she said.
Penakota and Zenabadu are located deep in the forests of the Eastern Ghat mountain range, about 750 km from Hyderabad city. Though connected to the main power grid, the electricity supply in this remote region is erratic and inadequate, lasting barely six to seven hours a day.
Across India, there is an overall energy deficit of 8.7 percent and a peak shortage of 9 percent, despite the country’s installed power capacity of 236.4 gigawatts (GW), according to official statistics.
“Most of my students come from underprivileged families. It is important that they pass their exams and go on to college,” said teacher Labudu. “But we have power cuts most evenings, especially in the summer. So the back-up solar power is a big help. It allows me to take extra classes after school to help the boys prepare well.”
Zenabadu and Penakota are two of the 59 schools in the region run by the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), a government body that works for tribal welfare. The ITDA is providing each school with a 1 kilowatt (kW) solar PV kit as a back-up power system, and a solar-run water pump.
According to Venkata Murthy, state coordinator at The Energy Research Institute (TERI), which is ITDA’s implementing partner on the solar scheme, installation has been completed in 20 schools and the rest will be done in two years’ time. The full project cost of 1.4 million rupees (around $2 million) is being funded by the central government.
“Each of these schools usually needs about 6 to 7 kW. So the solar power here is to be used only when there is a failure in grid-power supply,” Murthy said. That happens most days, especially in the evenings.
The ITDA initiative is not an isolated one. Thousands of schools across the country are shifting towards renewable energy. Leading this emerging trend is Kerala, where the state government has been actively promoting both solar and bio-mass energy.
There are 4,000 government-run schools in the state’s urban areas. Under a scheme called the Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project, which promotes renewable energy within urban planning, each school will benefit from 1 kW solar panels and a biogas plant. The scheme was launched in January, and several schools have already received their equipment.
G Happy Kumar, deputy mayor of the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, said the biogas plants have a dual purpose. They manage the waste the schools generate by processing it for energy, and they also save on the cost of cooking gas.
The biogas - estimated to burn for two to three hours per day - will be used to prepare a daily free lunch for students.
Kumar said the initiative is part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), a national plan to improve existing urban infrastructure.
Meeting local needs is a major factor behind the current trend in renewable energy. But experts say the government’s generous subsidy policy is also giving it a big push.
Currently India has installed capacity of 24.9 GW from new and renewable technology sources, according to official data. To help grow capacity, the government is providing a 30 percent subsidy on all off-grid solar projects. Where the project caters for a marginalised community, such as tribal people, the subsidy goes up to 70 percent.
“The initial cost of a renewable energy project is daunting. For example, a 1 kW solar PV plant requires 200,000 rupees (around $3,200). So a liberal subsidy policy such as this does help,” said Krishna Rao, head of the Kovel Foundation, which helps forest tribes improve their livelihoods sustainably.
The foundation has previously provided solar dryers to help forest women dry their herbs, and is now planning to set up solar PV plants to decrease their dependence on grid power.
The government initiative seems to be encouraging privately run schools to adopt renewable energy too. For instance, in January, St Sebastian’s Higher Secondary School, a private education institution in Kerala, shifted completely from grid power to solar energy – the first school in the state to do so.
The school authorities say the move will help them save some 80,000 rupees ($1,200) each year in power costs. Another popular private school called Vimalagiri has installed a 37 kW solar PV station, the state’s largest solar installation yet.
While education is not one of India’s most energy-intensive sectors, technology developments including wider use of computers, laboratories and public address systems are driving a growing demand for electricity. Even more reason for schools to opt for renewable energy, experts say.
Consultancy firm Grant Thornton estimated in a 2010 report that India’s primary and secondary education sector was growing at 14 percent per year, and would be worth $50 billion in 2015.
Demand for energy in schools is set to rise in line with this expansion, and they would do well to opt for renewable sources, said Shailandra Bisht, professor at the Indian Business School in Hyderabad.
“Right now renewable energy is heavily subsidised, but the grid power tariff is constantly revised. So adopting renewable energy is a good way for investors to avoid the extra cost burden,” Bisht said.
Others argue that introducing clean energy in schools will also bring about cultural change.
“Access to clean energy will eventually help a child learn about environmental conservation and the value of sustainable development,” said Murtali Bashyam, an educator who is installing a 1 kW solar PV plant in a school in Guttahali, a village on the outskirts of Bangalore.
Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.
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