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Solar surge brings green heat and hope to India's far north

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sat, 3 May 2014 13:18 GMT
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Tsering Nurbo fills the tank of his solar water-heating system outside his energy-efficient home in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. TRF/Athar Parvaiz
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LADAKH, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tsering Nurbo of Leh town in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir proudly explains how the smart design of his new home has eased the hardships he and his wife suffered during the mountain region’s extreme winters.

“Now the hard work - which we had to put in to keep our home warm - has reduced many-fold,” he said. “Before we had to use a lot of firewood and cow dung for generating warmth. Now we are not doing that any more thanks to our new house.”

Nurbo doesn’t know that the house he now owns is called a Passive Solar House (PSH). Neither does he know much about the technology and design that has transformed his life. But he is happy with the way it is working for him.

A PSH harnesses solar energy by trapping solar radiation to heat the interior of a building, through large south-facing windows and insulated trombe walls, ceilings and floors. The houses soak up the sun’s rays on winter days and retain the heat, enabling rooms to stay warm through the night, explained Rigzin Dorje, coordinator of the PSH project run by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG).

Double walls of sun-dried bricks, with gaps in between for insulation, and double-glazed windows are key features of the homes, which also use environmentally-friendly building materials. Sawdust and wood-shavings are used for insulation, for example, rather than the plastic sheets that are easily available in the market.

The room temperature always remains above 10 degrees Celsius in winter in the solar homes, while it falls far below zero in traditional houses. Temperatures in the Ladakh region drop as low as minus 35 degrees in winter despite the region’s sunny days. 

Insulation also keeps the houses cool in summer, when the different positioning of the sun’s rays means they do not capture heat.   

GREENER AND HEALTHIER

“This is really wonderful. I like the way we are benefiting from the sun’s energy,” Nurbo said. The new house not only saves his family the drudgery of procuring and burning fuel for warmth but has brought other comforts too. Smokeless heating helps them breathe easier, and taking a bath has become much less of an endurance test in harsh winter temperatures, Nurbo noted.

More than 350 families in the Changthang and Nobra areas of Leh – the capital of the ancient Hamalayan kingdom of Ladakh in India’s far north - have received technical support and construction materials from LEDeG to build solar houses.

LEDeG, an award-winning organisation that promotes sustainable development in Ladakh, has received funding for its PSH project from international NGOs, including GERES India and the Inter-Church Organisation for Development Cooperation, a Dutch group.   

“Since Ladakh - being a desert - has no resources of fossil fuels, dependence on these fuels doesn’t make any sense,” said Lobzang Tsultim, LEDeG’s executive director. “Apart from that, using dung and firewood to heat homes has implications for health and the environment too.”  

The group has been advising people across Ladakh on how to use solar energy to heat their homes, explaining that it requires less effort and is environmental-friendly into the bargain.   

The amount of fuel used for heating has dropped by two thirds, cutting indoor air pollution and health hazards, Tsultim said. Moreover, each household has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 3.5 tonnes annually.

Due to the scarcity of fuel resources in Ladakh and the abundance of solar radiation in the high-altitude desert, the region’s solar energy network is growing. On top of meeting the energy needs of local people, it could also produce solar energy for other parts of India in future.    

BIG AMBITIONS

Jigmet Takpa, project director at the Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency (LREDA) which is working with the Indian government under its solar mission programme, noted that Ladakh has no forests. Fuel wood and timber are transported in from Kashmir, while diesel and kerosene come from other parts of India at a high cost.

But thanks to the $87 million solar project in Ladakh, led by India’s New and Renewable Energy Ministry, this has changed rapidly.   

“All the hotels and households in Ladakh are now using solar energy for lighting and water-heating, while many are using solar cookers as well,” Takpa told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ladakh “is in close proximity with God”, Takpa quipped, and coupled with the climatic advantages this confers, the region is poised to be a solar energy leader, he said.

“Every square metre of our land has the potential to generate 1,200 watts of solar power, which is the highest in India,” Takpa noted. The region gets more than 320 clear sunny days a year, and the low air temperature enables the solar panels to work more efficiently, he added.  

According to Takpa, the Indian government has set a target of boosting solar-power generating capacity to 400,000 megawatts by 2050, a quarter of which is due to be situated in Ladakh.

“We have already installed 137 small solar power plants for remote villagers, monasteries, educational institutions and hospitals,” he said.  

SUBSIDIES

The impact of this solar energy initiative on the lives of Ladakh’s people is clear to see. Solar water heating systems perch atop every household and hotel in Leh, while outside lies the solar cooking equipment.

Dependence on diesel, kerosene and firewood has been cut dramatically in this sparsely populated region of some 280,000 people. According to LREDA figures, solar water systems that can heat 1.15 million litres per day have replaced electric water heaters, and kerosene or diesel-based boilers. And 4,500 domestic solar ovens have helped overcome reliance on liquefied petroleum gas and biomass.

The government’s decision to subsidise the solar-energy devices has attracted almost all households to the initiative. Schools, residential homes, hotels and guest houses receive a 50 percent subsidy for solar equipment, while government offices enjoy a 90 percent subsidy for installing solar-powered energy systems.  

Athar Parvaiz is an independent journalist based in Srinagar and New Delhi, India. 

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