West Bengal's Sunshine Schools project aims to bring cheap, reliable power to 25,000 remote schools and add 250 MW of clean energy to the grid
* Project aims to install solar systems at 1,000 schools a year
* Each school can cut annual carbon emissions by 10 tonnes
* Surplus clean energy feeds back into the state's grid
(Updates with information on maintaining the systems)
By Moushumi Basu
KOLKATA, India, June 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Until two years ago, all 12-year-old Sapan Majhi knew about solar power was what he read in his science book. Now he gets to see it in action nearly every day, after his school was fitted with rooftop panels that generate clean electricity.
The solar energy system powers the whole school for 1,600 students in the remote town of Kakdwip in West Bengal state, including its computers, kitchens, science labs and even energy-hungry welding machines in vocational classes.
Before the school was equipped with solar through a government project in 2018, Majhi said it struggled with low and fluctuating power voltage, particularly in the summers when the main grid got overburdened.
"But today the quality of power has much improved," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Solar energy can be so powerful, it runs my whole school."
West Bengal's Sunshine Schools project aims to lower carbon emissions and bring cheap, reliable energy to the state's classrooms by swapping traditional grid electricity supplies for solar power produced onsite by grid-connected systems.
Saktiram Das, the teacher in charge of monitoring the solar system at Akshaynagar Jnanadamoyee Vidyaniketan High School, said its pupils had gained a new appreciation of green energy.
"Our students now get to see and understand the real-time efficacy of solar power," he said.
"They learn from a young age the importance of clean energy and how it keeps our environment clean."
The project run by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (WBREDA) aims to add at least 250 megawatts of solar power to the grid by 2030, said governing board member Ratan Mondal.
"One of our basic aims ... is to connect remote schools with robust and easily available power, so that even rural children can benefit from the latest educational facilities," Mondal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The project has so far covered 1,800 schools across the state, and plans to install mini solar energy plants - each costing 450,000 Indian rupees ($6,210) - in 1,000 schools every year, eventually reaching a total of 25,000, he added.
Besides cutting planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions and providing a steady power supply, the switch to solar from the conventional electricity supply has also substantially reduced the schools' energy bills.
Any surplus solar power generated is fed into the national grid and is offset against the cost of what schools take from the grid when their solar systems cannot meet their needs, such as on a cloudy day, Mondal explained.
Mithila Shyamal, a senior teacher at the Bankisole Akshoy Kumar Institution, a high school in Bankura district, said before getting its solar panels, the school's energy bills were 15,000-17,000 rupees every three months.
But over the past two years, that has come down to nearly nothing. The school has used the savings for activities such as tree-planting, hiring teachers and sanitation upkeep, he added.
For the first five years after installation, the WBREDA covers the maintenance costs for the school solar plants.
After that, schools pay annual maintenance fees of about 9,000 rupees, a fraction of their previous electricity bills, said Pranay Singh, an electrical engineer at AKA Logistics, a firm working with the WBREDA to install the systems.
Singh said the systems are easy to maintain, and his team trains a few staff and students at each school to clean the solar panels with a moist cloth to get rid of dust or bird droppings, and to manage minor faults.
The company also uses remote monitoring to check on the systems, and Singh’s team visits the schools periodically to inspect their condition.
Burning fossil fuels for energy, transport and industry is the main source of the emissions heating up the Earth's climate. About 70% of India's electricity generation comes from fossil fuels, according to government figures.
Rabin Roy, managing director of Suncraft Energy, the first company to start installations for the Sunshine Schools project, said the systems allow each school to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 tonnes a year.
That is about the same amount as a car produces driving 25,000 miles (40,230 km).
India has committed to cutting its carbon intensity, or its emissions per unit of gross domestic product, by about 35% compared to 2005 levels by 2030.
To that end, the country wants to raise its renewable power capacity to 500 gigawatts (GW) - or 40% of total capacity - this decade, including 100GW from solar, up from about 35GW today.
Binoy Krishna Choudhury, who teaches energy management at the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management in Kolkata, said the Sunshine Schools project is a reliable, cheap way to move India toward its green goals.
The mini plants only require a one-time investment for installation and, because they are connected to the grid, do not need batteries. These so-called "fit and forget" systems are also efficient as they feed any surplus into the grid, he noted.
At Bogdahara Siddikiya High Madrasah, a school for minority students in Bankura district, the solar system has opened up new opportunities for students, said senior teacher Liakat Ali.
The consistent power supply and energy cost savings have allowed the school to run computer classes and activities including mock parliamentary sessions and health programmes.
The project has also highlighted the benefits of solar far beyond the school gates, Ali said.
"It was a completely new and enlightening concept for us," he said. "The system is spreading awareness not only among students, but also in their homes and the surrounding villages."
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($1 = 72.4710 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Moushumi Basu, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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