Clean Tech

Energy by locals, for locals

Preethi Mehra | Updated on: May 05, 2020

Solar Man of India, Chetan Singh Solanki

A one-man mission invokes Gandhian principles to make renewable power a household agenda. Preeti Mehra reports

While the entire country has been in lockdown mode, one individual — popularly known as the Solar Man of India — has been quietly unlocking the skills of hundreds of green-energy enthusiasts to enable them to build their own solar systems at home. Through social media such as YouTube and WhatsApp, Chetan Singh Solanki, who works with the Department of Energy Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay, has put out a step-by-step series, “Learn to Design Your Own Solar System” to help you make your home self-reliant on the energy front.

“It’s a methodical, easy-to-follow series that has kindled interest in me, and my son. The 15th post in the series is very important as it details the costing of the project and the availability of materials, it gives you a good idea of what it will take to execute it,” says Sanjiv Mehta, an ex-services resident of Gurugram, who has been following the series and plans to build his own system very soon.

This is just one in a long list of projects that Solanki has been pursuing over the past two years to popularise solar energy and make it reach every single home. Adhering deeply to Gandhian principles, the professor has been advocating “Energy Swaraj” in a big way, in other words, independence from grid-based electricity.

Winter experiment

“Government subsidy, promoting or tweaking current energy solutions of the world will not be sufficient to mitigate climate change. Rather, immediate and drastic measures are required,” says Solanki, as he invites environmentally-conscious people to surrender their grid connections and switch entirely to renewable energy solutions.


Solanki explaining how to build a solar system in India


In the winter that just passed by, the professor had started an energy saving campaign, convincing people to switch off their refrigerators. Called, “IssWinterFridgeBandKar” (Switch off your fridge this winter), he inspired over a hundred people in the country to stop using their machines throughout the cold months, a difficult task, no doubt, considering the level of conditioning of people in the urban environment.

These, however, are small measures that Solanki has taken, compared to his 2019 sojourn to promote solar energy across the world. The professor took a break from his academic pursuits at IIT Bombay and undertook a Gandhi Global Yatra through 30 countries and 30 cities within India. Carrying it out over a six-month period, he inspired people across the world, and in India, to embrace green energy and taught students how to build their own solar products.

Last year, on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, around 9.25 lakh students in 54 countries built solar study lamps by themselves.

In New Delhi, 10,000 students carried out the task at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, along with 5,000 organisations.

The energy paradox

“You see, energy is the driving force of growth, but at the same time energy has become the key cause of climate change. So, the only way to go is becoming locally sufficient in energy — that’s what this movement is about,” explains Solanki.

Fortunately for the professor, his cause received a massive shot in the arm last year in the form of an award of $100,000 that translated into ₹71 lakh. With it, Solanki started the Energy Swaraj Foundation (ESF) this January, with targets spelt out till 2030, which he plans to achieve without government funding or dipping into government renewable energy schemes.

He points out that the motto of ESF is ‘energy by locals for locals’ just like Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj, and believes that a significant transformation in energy generation can be achieved not by the governments around the world or their policies, but through the involvement of the public.

So, to provide local citizens affordable, reliable and complete energy solutions, ESF has roped in several academic institutions to establish what he calls “Energy Swaraj Ashrams” or solar incubation centres that will help and nurture local entrepreneurs who will provide solutions and services for people to achieve energy self-reliance.

And how will this be done? By building capacity at the local level, providing cost-effective but good- quality technology solutions and establishing a supply chain to reach the last mile. To achieve the last goal, micro entrepreneurs will be encouraged to start solar swaraj shops in rural areas that will deal in green energy products. Around 700 such shops are already up and functioning.

The Solar Man believes it is possible for communities to be energy self-sufficient if they gave themselves half a chance. His movement has already inspired 500 houses to go solar, pledging to surrender their electricity connections. “People have the capacity to manufacture solar products, install and use them. It is going to create jobs, empower women and save enormous energy. However, it needs a change in lifestyle,” notes Solanki.

Walking the talk

Solanki, for one, is living what he is advocating. During the current Covid-19 lockdown, he is at his home in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. “Since my yatra I use no gadgets at home — no refrigerator, no washing machine, no geyser, no microwave, no television. We are trying out PV-panel-based solar cooking. Our fans and computers run on solar energy and in the 14-acre school campus where I live, I am planting one tree every day.”


Say AMG (avoid, minimise, generate), not OMG: Solanki teaching children in Uganda to build a solar lamp


Going forward, Solanki is keen on promoting zero power houses and solar-passive architecture. He hopes to collaborate with the architect community on this so that future buildings in India are designed to encourage natural light coming in and are self-sufficient on the energy front. “My motto is AMG to avoid OMG — Avoid use of energy; Minimise what you use; and Generate what you need. This will avoid the situation of ‘Oh My God’ what do we do,” he says with a laugh, but with serious conviction.

Published on May 06, 2020
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