A need-based switch to solar energy

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EVERY WEEK, Udaiveer Singh, a farmer in Nagla Gooler, a hamlet about 50 km from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, gets on his shiny new bicycle for a fourday trip, carrying a bag full of Kiran and Nova branded solar lanterns. His aim is to sell these lanterns in villages within a 60 km radius.

Working as a local entrepreneur for D.light Design, a multinational company that produces these solar lanterns for domestic use in rural India, Singh has already sold about 4,000 lanterns in the past three years. And demand is steadily rising. Not because the villagers have taken a fancy to a new product pushed smartly by a sales genius, but because they have few other options.

Not on any electricity grid, kerosene lanterns have been the only source of light for the people of Nagla Gooler and its adjoining villages. And like those in this village, there are around 480 million offgrid people in India.

It is mostly the lower-middle segment farmers of the area who use kerosene lamps to light up the small businesses they run to supplement their income. But the peculiar mechanics of the kerosene trade adds a twist to this.

The public distribution system (PDS) restricts the supply of kerosene to 2 litres per ration card per month at the current government rate of Rs 13 per litre. This is enough for just one lantern for about 20 days. The rest is purchased in the black market where the dealer can charge up to Rs 25 to Rs 30 per litre. Even at this price, there is no guarantee of availability.

After the initial investment, the solar lanterns have virtually no running cost

In this scenario, solar lanterns are anything but a privilege. At Rs 549 each for Kiran, the base model, and Rs 1,699 per piece for the highend model Nova, the lanterns have a low operating cost, with the batteries, which have a six-month warranty, lasting a couple of years.

Fitted with solar panels, the lanterns need sunlight for 7 to 8 hours to be charged. According to D.light, a full charge can provide light for about 4 to 7 hours depending on the brightness setting.

The benefits are not only economic. Solar lamps do not pose a fire hazard. Moreover, eye irritation and breathing problems caused by kerosene fumes are eliminated.

However, D.light is not the only vendor of solar lamps. Kotak Urja is promoting its Wonderlight priced at Rs 3,300 while Tata BP Solar sells its Star solar lantern for Rs 2,000. But despite a lower priced lantern in the market, its use is not proving to be an easy task. Says Singh, “People are skeptical about solar lanterns and reluctant to shift from traditional lighting to a new technology that requires a large initial investment.”

There are also questions about the utility of solar lamps during the rainy season when little sunlight is available. In spite of such concerns, however, solar lanterns are slowly making inroads into the rural hinterland.

Says Mandeep Singh, chief operation officer of D.light Design, India, “We have improved the lives of half a million people within a span of three years. Our aim is to permanently replace kerosene lanterns with solar lamps.” That may take a much stronger marketing and perhaps even lower prices.

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