These villages get light from rice husk

Preeti Mehra Recently in West Champaran district | Updated on August 10, 2011

Let there be light: CFL bulb lighting up the village butcher’s shop. – Preeti Mehra   -  Business Line

The miles of paddy fields on the left and right of the potholed, narrow road are occasionally disrupted with patches of sugar cane, corn and mustard.

We're traversing through the West Champaran district of Bihar, braking hard frequently as goats and cows suddenly emerge out of the elephant grass and bamboo groves that line the road. Low roofed, thatched huts squatting on wet, marshy land can be seen in the roadside hamlets that we pass. They are surrounded by round mud granaries with upper coverings that look like pointed hats. In the fading evening light, you can spot darkness within the huts and children gathered around the central tree yards.

“It's like a sliver on one corner if you look at the map, cut off from the rest of Bihar,” comments Ratnesh Yadav, the COO of Husk Power Systems (HPS), about the district. He carefully manoeuvres his SUV through the goats and oncoming bullock carts explaining his Bihari antecedents and the endeavour to empower the people here.

Ratnesh, 32, is one of the partners who started the renewable energy company in 2007 to bring light into rural homes that were not connected to the grid. The company uses rice husk and other biomass to generate electricity for its mini plants across the district. Currently, the company runs 70 plants, with 10 more in the pipeline.

1.25 l villages sans power

By 2014, it aims to install 2014 rice husk power plants, each having a capacity of 35-50 kW. For the record, India still has approximately 1,25,000 villages that are yet to be connected to the grid.

We reach Dahwa village, where the HPS plant is about nine months old. As dusk descends, the husk loader climbs the stairs of an interesting contraption where gasification of the husk takes place. He loads the husk, which once turned into gas passes through purifying chambers to ultimately reach the generator that converts it into electricity. Distribution is done through a special wiring in a 30 km radius, the electricity reaching 400 homes and shops in the vicinity.

Dahwa, like the rest of the villages using these plants, gets electricity for six hours – from 6 pm to 12 pm. At the consumer end, the company provides two CFL bulbs and an electrical point to charge the mobile. It initially charges each household Rs 100 for the connection. Later a pre-paid system of billing determines the user charge, on an average Rs 80 to Rs 100 a month.

For generating one unit or a kilo watt hour of electricity, the power plant uses less than 2 kg of rice husk. At around 95 paise for a kg of rice husk, the variable cost for generating one unit of electricity is under Rs 2. The total capital expenditure for a month for each plant is pegged around Rs 24,000, including the salaries, raw material and maintenance.

No one seems to be grumbling about the Rs 100 that they have to shell out.

“Earlier as night came on, we would be plunged in darkness and had to use kerosene for our lanterns or else candles. Now our children can study after dark, we also keep our shops open for longer hours and do better business,” says Ranjit, a butcher in the village market.

More enthusiastic are the youngsters, some of whom are employed at the plant. Apart from light in the home, 21-year-old Ajit Kumar is proud to be a company employee. “I started as an electrician in 2009. I was picked up for further training in a short while. Now I'm doing my BA, working as a mechanic with HPS and earning Rs 6,500,” he says proudly.

Husk Power Varsity

Many more enthusiastic boys like Ajit would soon be part of the venture, says Ratnesh explaining their skills training venture – the Husk Power University.

Started through a Shell Foundation grant, the idea is to find and train talent in the vicinity of each plant. “As we scale up we need a lot of trained human resource. Professional skills are scarce in these parts,” says Ratnesh.

As the night comes on, a thick cloak of darkness envelops the entire area. CFL bulbs light up each of the hutments, as the village beats back the darkness.

Published on July 18, 2011

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