SAGAR ISLAND, India (AlertNet) - Eight years ago, Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal was a shining example of India’s efforts to power remote, impoverished areas with solar energy. But a government decision to hook up the island with the electric grid has left the solar scheme in tatters.
Between 2000 and 2004, a range of solar power systems - including household photovoltaic panels, home and street lighting, and mini grids - were installed on Sagar with large state subsidies. The government also helped cover generation and distribution expenses, at a cost of around $2.5 million.
Sagar, located in West Bengal state on India’s eastern fringes, is the largest of the 102 islands that make up the Sundarbans delta - the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem - and has a population of 200,000.
A year ago, solar and wind-diesel hybrid generation facilities were generating close to 1 megawatt (mW) of electricity, distributed through mini grids to some 2,000 households.
The island’s 11 solar stations can each produce between 25 kilowatts (kW) to 100 kW, totaling close to 800 kW, distributed via power lines 2 to 3 km long. They supply 1,400 households and commercial establishments. The generation cost is about Rs10 ($0.20) per unit (100 watt/hour), which is then sold for Rs7, the Rs3 difference being borne by the West Bengal government.
The wind-diesel hybrid plant has about 600 customers, and generates 300 kW at a generation cost of Rs6 per unit. In addition, some 7,000 households have home lighting systems powered by individual solar panels.
Yet, despite the early success of renewable energy on the island, the government decided in 2009 to connect the island with the main power grid – effectively walking away from its own project.
Sagar has been hooked up with the grid under an ambitious national scheme called Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojna (RGGVY), which aims to bring electric power to all villages without it by 2012. People below the poverty line get free electricity and the rest pay rates as low as Rs3.5 per unit.
Power has been supplied on Sagar under this initiative since April, and the state has a target of connecting 43,000 households over the next two years, according to its power minister, Manish Gupta.
Initially, Sagar had been excluded from the national RGGVY scheme due to technical unfeasibility. But that decision was reversed largely for business and political reasons.
In 2009, the Left Front decided to subsidise Sagar’s connection to the grid during its rule in West Bengal. But even after it lost power in May 2011, the programme has been continued by the present state government which is controlled by the Trianmul Congress, a breakaway faction of the Indian National Congress.
According to Anshuman Das, an activist who has worked in the Sundarbans for over 10 years, religion has been another influencing factor. The huge Gangasagar festival sees half a million pilgrims travel to the island every January to take a dip in the water where the Ganges River meets the Bay of Bengal, and a further half a million are estimated to visit through the rest of the year.
The infrastructure for the grid connection – including electric wires – started to go up in 2010.
“The ecological footprint of this scheme will be massive with all these electric poles across the river. The cost is also prohibitive,” said Das of the NGO Sabuj Sangh, which works on local disaster prevention projects.
Kanti Ganguly, the minister for the Sundarbans Development Department between 2000 and 2010, said Sagar was included in the RGGVY because of other major infrastructure plans for the region.
“The Kolkata Port Trust is planning to set up a port in Sagar, and Indian Railways has taken up a project to connect the island to the mainland worth Rs2,000 crore (close to $379 million). In view of these, it made sense to connect Sagar to the grid,” he said.
For a village to be classed as electrified, at least 10 per cent of its households must receive a unit of electricity per day. There are now plans to connect 353,000 households in the Indian Sundarbans to the grid with financial support from the RGGVY and West Bengal state government.
FALLING INTO DISREPAIR
Local consumers in Sagar may be pleased with the policy U-turn, as they will get cheaper - and perhaps more reliable - electricity. But one side-effect is that Sagar’s solar energy facilities are being neglected, and could even become defunct rather than contributing to the government’s target of installing 20,000 mW of solar power capacity by 2020.
Since Sagar started to access power from the grid, some islanders have stopped using solar energy, and the state government is no longer paying to maintain the solar facilities.
As a result, solar capacity is gradually declining and the state of the generation equipment is deteriorating - a trend that will continue if demand for solar power declines further, experts warn.
Shaktipada Ganchowdhury, former director of the West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation Ltd (WBREDA) which managed the solar project, is understandably pessimistic about its future. The money needed to connect Sagar to the grid would have been better spent lighting up villages on the mainland, he says.
He argues that the government should have invested in upgrading the island’s solar technology to bring down costs and made an effort to unify tariffs for power produced from different sources. The cost of generating solar power, while still not as cheap as coal-based production, has fallen over the past decade.
“When these stations were started in 2000, the generation cost was close to Rs10 per unit. Technology has already brought that down to about Rs8 now,” said Ganchowdhury.
“The capital cost, transmission loss and the generation expenses (incurred) in extending the main grid will be far greater, which the government will eventually need to pay as subsidies. Instead, far less subsidy would be required to spread solar connectivity and generation, an option which is far more environmentally friendly,” he added.
Former Sundarbans development minister Ganguly said the renewable energy infrastructure set up on Sagar should not be wasted. “The present government should think about how it can be utilised. I am sure there are ways to do it,” he told AlertNet.
Aditya Ghosh is a journalist who has carried out extensive research and reporting in the Indian Sundarbans.