Forces of nature

Forces of nature

It was known as the “well of darkness". And the village of Tamkuha in Bihar lived up to its name. But on 15 August 2007, 60 years after independence, Tamkuha shrugged off its shame and walked into the light.

Three years ago, Husk Power Systems Pvt. Ltd (HPS), a local company, used rice husk to liberate the village. It set up its first biomass power plant in the remote village, and soon spread to 200 more villages. Ratnesh Yadav, COO and co-founder of HPS, still has the photo of the boy he spotted studying in the white light of a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulb powered by his plant at the first house he walked into, soon after. “That was the biggest impact we saw, by far. One of our employees, a schoolteacher, aptly said, India got its independence 60 years ago, but this village got its today," says Yadav.

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HPS’ plants, which number close to 40 today, light up about 20,000 households, including small shops, photostat machines, computers and even a few rice mills. Apart from being a non-conventional energy source—which means it is not based on fossil fuels and is, therefore, cleaner—the power supplied from HPS’ plants makes a smaller dent in the monthly budgets of villagers. On an average, a household would spend Rs125-200 on one kerosene lamp a month but HPS supplies 30 watts to each home, which is sufficient to light two CFL bulbs and power multiple cellphone chargers, at Rs80 a month.

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The lack of power infrastructure in Bihar, and even more unreliable power supply, is spawning a school of entrepreneurs who not only see business sense in investing in biomass energy for unconnected villages, but also a sense of fulfilment. “In Bihar, the alternative energy market is big and will get bigger. If you walk through a Patna market or in another city in Bihar, you will see solar panels and (other) paraphernalia selling in a large number of shops lining the market," says Ramapati Kumar, campaign adviser with Greenpeace India.

Father Paul Mariadass, who is a director with Solar Alternatives and Associates Programmes (Saap), has his feet firmly on the ground. The Saap venture has been undertaken by the Jesuits and specializes in using technology to serve the underprivileged by providing pollution-free solar thermal power. “Personally, I just happened to get into it. I have only been here for seven months. I can’t say it’s a miracle or a change of heart," says Mariadass.

Saap, which is based in Patna, promotes solar energy and provides consultation. The organization also has a small workshop and can, on demand, manufacture flat-plate hot water panels, solar dryers for food processing, Scheffler parabolic concentrators, solar distillation units and cookers mostly for hospitals and educational institutes.

Mariadass’ return on investment, however, comes from somewhere else. “It is very heartening when engineering students come and say that they would like to train locals at the workshop," he says.

Vivek Gupta, director, Saran Renewable Energy Pvt. Ltd, echoes Yadav on the educational aspect of access to electricity. “Since we hire locally as well, the village we light is where the workers live. One of the workers was saying the plant has helped his children. I was under the impression that it just replaces kerosene but children are not enabled to study in that as they are under electric light. Quality of light is very, very important," says Gupta.

Gupta and Yadav are both from Bihar. Yadav, however, had never lived in Bihar before 2003. His return to the state from distant Los Angeles was empowering in all senses of the word.

Bored and lonely in an unfamiliar city, Yadav made the most of his time. “When you travel through Bihar, everything you want needs to be done, be it education, healthcare or infrastructure. At no point of time did I feel that I was doing anything significant. I was earning enough and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything. So I started exploring energy management," remembers Yadav.

Bihar has not always been kind to them. For Gupta, sourcing finance has been tough. Bankers are reluctant to finance such projects and the government hasn’t exactly helped, he says. “In Bihar, we always believe that this is the worst place to start a business. We are now trying to build a training and manufacturing facility near Patna for skilled labour force," says Yadav.

Neither is giving up, however. For Yadav, only 2,014 plants by year 2014 will do; Gupta is aiming for 100 plants by 2013.