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Sundarbans seizes the power of sun

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(From Left- The sundarbans delta region; The battery charging station at a village common space; A woman bringing her batteries for recharge; The off grid centralised solar power station; Girls going to a high school also lit with solar power; 

Two villages of the Sundarbans delta region in east of India, comprising 140 households, nearly 30 shops, streets, and main public buildings including a senior school now have solar panels. The panels provide for the first time, electricity in an otherwise electricity starved region and that too by clean and renewable solar energy.

Indeed, the two villages now lit with distributed solar, and a solar battery charging station each, are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to lighting up all the villages in the Sundarbans region, 23 of them where grid electricity will either be too expensive or too delayed in the future, notwithstanding the total 1100 villages in the delta region, most of which are electrified on paper, yet suffer from frequent ‘brown-outs’ due to malfunctioning and inefficient set ups!

The Sundarbans itself is a rare landscape like no other where the sea and the fresh water have no boundaries for over four thousand sq km of area, where the high tide submerges thousands of acres of mangrove every day only to make the trees emerge in a very obvious ‘water line ‘the next day.

It is a land of contrast in some ways. On the one hand, the region is home to several rare and endangered species including the Royal Bengal tiger. On the other, it is also home to the highest densities of human population in the world. One side there is the axe of poverty, on the other is soft mud ever ready to engulf. There might not be a light at home but there is a mobile phone!

This time while on the islands, I got to witness first hand, the contradictions even further. Those combating the most immediate effects of sea level rise globally are not just the ones who are least responsible in causing it and as well most vulnerable to it-they are pretty much living on the edge as a result of it- a mud embankment is all that remains between fragile huts and the vast waters should there ever be a surge.

It is clear that combating effects of climate change come along with working towards the regions conservation, providing the inhabitants with basic energy needs, and reducing the impacts that people can create on the biodiversity and the landscape.

The first project that WWF piloted in the region is an off-grid centralised renewable energy-based village energy systems is owned and managed by a consumer cooperative. It involves a comprehensive community engagement and energy planning framework enabling households to draw up energy budgets for 24 hour cycles. The simple process of each household calculating their energy needs now ensures a predetermined, assured amount of daily energy to all consumers. On the technical side, this is made possible through the installation of unique demand side management hardware- an energy meter in every household. On another level, it means that increasingly students find more hours to study, women to do household work, and everyone to relax by listening to music or watching their favorite soaps on TV.

The second project involves setting up of a centralized solar PV charging station. The energy delivery mechanism here involves distribution of energy access kits and charged batteries which need to be recharged thrice every week at the solar charging station that is set up on a village common space. It does away with the cost of expensive infrastructure of setting up poles and wires to carry electricity to people’s houses, and works by connecting the batteries to the hard wired systems in each household. In a way, it fulfills the ‘main streaming’ desire of the villagers to be able to ‘switch on’ a light bulb, at the same time, remains cost effective.

These WWF’s pilot projects on providing first access to energy in the region clearly demonstrate that pulling the inhabitants of the delta from energy poverty, is liberating them not just from dependence on forests and firewood for lighting and cooking needs and reducing conflicts with wildlife, it is empowering them to dream, deliver and demand in their lives when the basic need to light up their huts at night is not a struggle anymore!

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