Until a year ago, Tsering Dorjay worked as a trekking guide and chef, earning not more than ₹12,000 a month during half the year. Toiling as guide and porter, he remained away from his family for months during the tourist season.
In 2014, the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) team installed a solar pico-grid with LED lights in Dorjay’s remote native village, Sumda Chenmo. The village experienced electricity for the first time ever, and Dorjay’s life fast-tracked onto the illuminated expressway. He currently earns ₹22,000-25,000 a month through his engagement with GHE on clean energy projects
The lifestyle of the villagers has changed too. Earlier, their day began at sunrise and halted abruptly at sunset. Today, renewable energy has extended their working hours and improved their livelihood.
As the village has fewer than 20 households, it doesn’t become eligible for the government’s mandated grid-based electrification and infrastructure development. Considering its location and the terrain, it seemed highly unlikely that electricity would arrive at this village for the next many years. The villagers relied on kerosene oil lanterns, with the fuel ferried to the village on horseback. Additionally, kerosene emits toxic fumes when it burns, which was obviously detrimental to their health. There are also no health services in the village.
Today, solar-based electrification has helped the villagers improve the quality of locally manufactured products. “Copper-making is an ancient craft and the mainstay of our livelihood. With solar lighting people can work into the night,” says Dorjay. Homestays, when trekkers stay overnight at villages, are also vital to the villagers’ incomes. Now, more trekkers opt for Sumda Chenmo and are willing to pay extra for electricity at a homestay that allows them to charge their tablet computers and mobile phones. Village children have a greater incentive to remain home during the winter vacations rather than migrae to Leh, where there is better infrastructure.
Lighting the village had a profound personal impact on Dorjay, who helped GHE coordinate its 2015 expedition to light other remote villages. Through electrifying villages, he has taken on a leadership role in the local communities.
The next stop was village Shingo. Here too, villagers were initially sceptical about the solar lighting initiative. “Sometimes the government takes years for such a development, so the villagers didn’t think it was possible in a day,” Dorjay explains. But after their houses were illuminated at night for the very first time, the villagers had a large celebration, welcoming the expedition team with kathaks (traditional silk scarfs) and delicious food.
Transforming the village
The expedition members experienced one night of darkness in Shingo before setting up the solar micro-grids. Before dark, they sketched plans for the placement of light bulbs inside the houses and the monastery. The team worked closely with the head of one of the households, Jigmet. She accompanied them to the various houses, suggesting the locations for light bulbs.
The following morning the team leaders reviewed the lighting plans prior to installation. Some GHE members cemented solar panels to the roofs of two buildings, while the others wired and nailed light fixtures to the ceilings and the exteriors of the houses and monastery. An electrician completed the wiring and connected the solar panels to a solar charge controller, which prevents overload in the circuits. The power grid utilises direct current (DC) because it is more efficient and safer than alternating current (AC), and can be easily maintained and extended by a local community. As part of the grid setup, GHE not only installs LED lights but also provides community lighting through LED-based solar street lights and a DC LED TV. However the villagers can, if they wish, easily convert their power to AC in the future, for use in large appliances such as refrigerators.
LED lights are perhaps the most important aspect of electrification, as villagers are no longer confined by daylight hours, which vary from season to season.
Working hours will increase in Shingo too and homestays will be more profitable. Shingo is also popular for sheep wool-based handicrafts; with grid-based lighting available, women in the village can work extra hours to make these handicrafts, which will fetch them additional income. The lighting will help Shingo retain its population and villagers will benefit more from farming too. “Especially during harvest we need lights around the fields,” says Jigmet. According to Dorjay, Shingo is likely to become an important hub as it is located along a trekking route to the region’s main valley.
Another positive outcome of electrification is the creation of ‘energy entrepreneurs’ in the villages, resulting in a new source of income along with community growth.
The GHE team helps establish a sustainable business model for maintaining the solar grids and expanding them in future. The expedition leaders select a villager to be in charge of maintaining the solar pico-grids. The entrepreneur must collect periodic payments from villagers who use the power grid. The collection is deposited into a bank account, which is then used for the upkeep of the grid and any future expansion efforts.
So far the GHE team, led by Paras Loomba, has reached out to 10 villages and identified another 47 with more than 600 households. The initiative has impacted around 1,800 villagers with the installation of 21 pico-grids.
The writer is a Global Himalayan Expedition 2015 participant from the US