This Summer, Scott and Rosemary Sherrod (pictured) traveled to India to continue advancing the India Regional Team’s objectives in education, maternal health, and alternate energy/business development. They were assisted by Rachel Nowlin and myself. Over the course of the trip, Scott met with NGOs, business owners, and village leaders to explore the issues surrounding urban and rural energy grids, and the possibilities that exist for our team engineering our own solar systems.
Urban energy grids in India are unreliable at best, fatal at worst. Daily power outages can last for hours, limiting productivity for both homes and businesses. Energizing one’s home can be deadly, as residents are often forced to tap into the power grid by connecting their homes to live wires and transformers.
Utility employees face equally dangerous conditions, servicing power stations with inadequate tools and limited technical knowledge. This serviceman repairs a large power relay with nothing more than a glove for protection and a cloth bag of basic tools.
In areas where electrical utilities are unavailable, large diesel and kerosene generators serve as substitutes. These units are expensive to purchase, operate, and maintain. Fuel itself is expensive (1 liter of diesel costs 25% of the daily wages of a laborer) and often requires traveling miles to acquire.
Villages near urban centers are often neglected by local utilities. Though the government installed concrete poles for power lines in this village on the edge of Lucknow (a city of over 5 million), the people were still without electricity eight months later, when we visited.
Villages with no access to power rely on alternative fuel sources for tasks like cooking. Cow manure is frequently used to fuel stoves in rural homes. While abundant and cheap, feces in the home cause health issues from smoke inhalation, the handling of manure, and the attraction of insects to homes with cows present.
The Barefoot College is an Indian organization committed to empowering poor villages in Northern India. Their primary focus is on training solar technicians, though they also work in children’s education, the arts, women’s empowerment, and water catchment systems.
The College is located in rural Tilonia, 200 km from Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. It is comprised of two village campuses, each powered exclusively by solar systems. The rain water systems and solar cookers enable over 100 workers to have hot baths, meals, and clean water for drinking.
The Barefoot College specializes in training women, particularly grandmothers, to engineer, install, and maintain solar systems. The College offers their program globally, recruiting poor and often illiterate women from Latin America, South East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Stationed around stacks of circuit boards and transistors, these grandmothers spend six months learning the intricacies of solar engineering. Education at the College is practical rather than conceptual. These women may not be able to communicate the science behind a circuit board, but they are fully capable of soldering components and troubleshooting faulty systems.
These solar lanterns are charged by grandmother-engineered systems. A full day’s charge can emit safe, clean light for up to six hours, extending the productivity and possibilities for dark, powerless village homes.
The benefit of learning a skill like solar engineering extends far beyond the practicalities of rural energization. Lucy, a Kenyan grandmother studying with the Barefoot College, explains that, “I am a woman who has never been to school and now I am able to offer my skill to all the homes in our village…I will not have to do hard work anymore.”
Empowering education affords the opportunity to innovate. These women, graduates of the Barefoot program, began their own school of metal fabrication and engineering. Utilizing designs of their own, they construct large solar cookers that help prepare safe and healthy meals without relying on expensive and dangerous technologies.
The ability to create and experiment is empowering for these women. They employ and improve upon technologies that were previously reserved only for educated men.
Solar energy provides poor villagers with opportunities not previously available to them. These children attend a night school made possible by solar energy. Though they work on their parent’s farms all day, they do not miss out on an education thanks to the use of solar lanterns.
Solar systems have the potential to greatly improve the environment of poor communities. This simple street light provides light to dark neighborhoods, allowing families to safely and securely travel between homes and stores at night.
Properly designed solar systems can help eliminate health issues that are often not considered as related to energization. Village leader Santosh displays an old kerosene lantern, the only option previously available to illuminate his small home at night. Not only do these lanterns require expensive fuel, but they also affect breathing conditions from the toxic smoke they emit.
Solar systems, however, are not automatically beneficial. The village of Bendeniphur felt fortunate to finance their purchase of over 40 panels and lights. Within months, a majority of these panels broke or failed to produce enough charge to adequately run solar LEDs.
“The technology we employ cannot be more valuable than the people we serve,” Scott Sherrod reflects. Our efforts in alternative energy must focus on education and empowerment, not merely supplying the resources we think they need. Not only have their panels have failed to improve their conditions, the people of Bendeniphur are now in debt, paying off the micro loans on a faulty system.
Our efforts for solar energy in India begin with our work here in Nashville. Scott Sherrod leads a small group experimenting with solar projects. This kind of planning and practice allows us to develop our capacity in a safe environment, where the failures of an experimental system do not harm the livelihood of poor families.
This small solar panel, fixed atop the Hopewell Garden greenhouse, is a small preview of the kind of possibilities that exist in solar application. It powers a USB charging station where garden volunteers can recharge mobile phones. Even a small system like this one can improve conditions for poor, rural villages in India, where work and education are often contingent upon the availability of electricity.