The Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site off the coast of India’s financial capital Mumbai, draw hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
But when the last of the wooden ferry boats leaves at nightfall for the mainland 14 kilometres (8.5 miles) away, the villagers who live permanently on the island are plunged into darkness.
A new scheme, launched this week by an Australian firm, aims to change that, providing three villages with round-the-clock electricity for the first time by harnessing power from the country’s most abundant energy source — sunshine.
The initiative by the Sydney-based Solar-Gem to run LED lamps from panels that soak up the sun’s rays and store them as electricity in battery units comes as domestic and foreign firms look to India as a growth market for renewable energy.
The head of Solar-Gem, Khimji Vaghjiani, said solar power had “enormous scope” in India, as 80,000 villages have no electricity and plans for conventional power plants are often delayed over land or environmental concerns about pollution.
“Trying to distribute power is going to be very difficult (in India),” he told AFP before the launch on Monday evening.
“What do we do in the meantime where villagers are using kerosene and candles? We can put them (solar panels) into every household, moving them away from harmful kerosene and costly diesel.”
Solar-Gem, whose initiative is a jointly funded Australian-Indian project, said India could become a manufacturing hub for its technology while France’s Solairedirect last week announced plans to set up in the country.
Leading overseas solar technology firms, particularly in the United States, however, are said to be concerned about Indian restrictions on imports and believe they could hinder attempts to boost solar power production.
Manish Ram, from the energy and climate unit at environmental group Greenpeace, said the country’s solar energy target was “very feasible” and there was no reason why India, with its warm, sunny climate, could not generate more.
Investment in “off-grid” energy schemes such as that on Elephanta Island could be the way forward for hard-to-reach rural areas, he said, as “the centralised system has failed to deliver” with power cuts widespread where supplies exist.
“Decentralised energy is definitely an option. But it should be done in the right way,” he said.
Local people could sell back surplus energy to the grid, he added, while the government should provide subsidies, as it does to the coal industry and as China has done, to offset the higher costs of solar units.
As, Panchabuta has often repeated, it is indeed heartening to see the foreign entrants also starting to focus on off grid and distributed solar applications apart from the utility-scale projects that usually get most of the attention in the main stream media.