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India Plugs into Low-Cost Solar Technology

  • Raymond Thibodeaux

Britain's Prince Andrew, second left, holds a solar lamp as students and teachers look on during his visit to H.R. College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, India (file photo – 09 Mar. 2010)

Britain's Prince Andrew, second left, holds a solar lamp as students and teachers look on during his visit to H.R. College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, India (file photo – 09 Mar. 2010)

India seems to excel at making things smaller and cheaper. The $2,500 car and the $35 computer are just two of the country's latest innovations. Now, India increasingly is focused on low-cost solar technology. The front lines of that effort are seen in a tiny village in the Indian state of Rajasthan called Tiloniya.

In this sunlit workshop, Tenzing Chonzom solders parts onto a device that regulates electrical currents. It will eventually be connected to a solar panel, allowing it to power everything from lamps to laptops.

Make low-cost solar panels

Chonzom says she was chosen by her community to come here to learn about solar technology. She says she will take the knowledge back to the villages where she lives. She says many people in her region, in the Himalayan foothills, still do not have access to electricity.

Chonzom is 50 years old, and one of two dozen people being trained here as solar engineers. Most have had no formal education. It is all part of a program to help India's rural poor by teaching them to make and install low-cost solar panels. Then they teach others to do the same. It is called Barefoot College, and so far it has trained thousands. Sanjit Bunker Roy started the program 25 years ago.

"You have to see how you can demystify the technology and bring it down to the community level so that they can manage, control and own the technology," said Roy.

Roy is among Time Magazine's Top 100 most influential people for 2010. He says grassroots solar technology is crucial for India. Nearly half the country's rural population – more than 300 million people – has either no electricity or just a few hours of it a day.

That limits how much people can do in a day, whether its homework or handicrafts.

Tapping local ingenuity

To help, Roy says he did what World Bank and U.N. aid projects often fail to do – that is, tap into the local ingenuity he sees every day.

"You'll find it everywhere in India, this infinite capacity to be able to improvise and fix things without having gone through any formal education," he added. "They have this incredible inbuilt skill that we haven't been able to define, appreciate or respect yet."

Women built solar cooker


As if to illustrate their inbuilt skill, Roy points out a solar cooker that some of the women at Barefoot College helped design and build. At its heart is a "solar tracker" made of old bicycle sprockets, springs and rocks. It allows a parabolic mirror – also homemade and about the size of a satellite TV dish – to follow the arc of the sun, focusing its rays into an aluminum stove. All the meals at the college are cooked on it.

One of its main designers is Sita Devi, a 30-year-old mother of two with only a third-grade education.

She says she wanted to make a solar cooker with materials that are easily available, even in remote villages. She says the cooker saves time – and the environment – by reducing the need for women to wander outside the village in search of firewood for cooking.

In this song, Devi and other women of the Barefoot Brigade extol the benefits of their solar cookers and lamps.

Roy says his program merely provides the space for the women to develop self-confidence. He says that is what drives the Barefoot Brigade's success in bringing power to more than 450 rural villages.

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