Low-cost lamps brighten the future of rural India

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

KHADAKWADI, INDIA ? Until just three months ago, life in this humble village without electricity would come to a grinding halt after sunset. Inside his mud-and-clay home, Ganpat Jadhav’s three children used to study in the dim, smoky glow of a kerosene lamp. And when their monthly fuel quota of four liters dried up in just a fortnight, they had to strain their eyes using the light from a cooking fire.

That all changed with the installation of low-cost, energy-efficient lamps that are powered entirely by the sun.

“Children can now study at night, elders can manage their chores better,” says Mr. Jadhav. “Life doesn’t halt anymore when darkness falls.”

The innovative lights were installed by the Grameen Surya Bijli Foundation (GSBF), a Bombay-based nongovernmental organization focused on bringing light to rural India. Some 100,000 Indian villages do not yet have electricity. The GSBF lamps use LEDs – light emitting diodes – that are four times more efficient than an incandescent bulb. After a $55 installation cost, solar energy lights the lamp free of charge.

LED lighting, like cellphones, is another example of a technology whose low cost could allow the rural poor to leapfrog into the 21st century.

As many as 1.5 billion people – nearly 80 million in India alone – light their houses using kerosene as the primary lighting media. The fuel is dangerous, dirty, and – despite being subsidized – consumes nearly 4 percent of a typical rural Indian household’s budget. A recent report by the Intermediate Technology Development Group suggests that indoor air pollution from such lighting media results in 1.6 million deaths worldwide every year.

LED lamps, or more specifically white LEDS, are believed to produce nearly 200 times more useful light than a kerosene lamp and almost 50 times the amount of useful light of a conventional bulb.

“This technology can light an entire rural village with less energy than that used by a single conventional 100 watt light bulb,” says Dave Irvine-Halliday, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Calgary, Canada and the founder of Light Up the World Foundation (LUTW). Founded in 1997, LUTW has used LED technology to bring light to nearly 10,000 homes in remote and disadvantaged corners of some 27 countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, and the Philippines.

The technology, which is not yet widely known in India, faces some skepticism here.

“LED systems are revolutionizing rural lighting, but this isn’t a magic solution to the world’s energy problems,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the electrical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

In a scenario in which nearly 60 percent of India’s rural population uses 180 million tons of biomass per year for cooking via primitive wood stoves – which are smoky and provide only 10-15 percent efficiency in cooking – Jhunjhunwala emphasizes the need for a clean energy source, not just for lighting but for other domestic purposes as well.

The Indian government in April launched an ambitious project to bring electricity to 112,000 rural villages in the next decade. However, the remote locations of the village will make reaching this goal difficult. A.K. Lakhina, the chairman of India’s Rural Electrification Corporation, says the Indian government recognizes the potential of LED lighting powered by solar technology, but expressed reservations about its high costs. “If only LEDs weren’t imported but manufactured locally,” he says, “and in bulk.”

At $55 each, the lamps installed in nearly 300 homes by GSBF cost nearly half the price of other solar lighting systems. Jasjeet Singh Chaddha, the founder of the NGO, currently imports his LEDs from China.

He wants to set up an LED manufacturing unit and a solar panel manufacturing unit in India. If manufactured locally, the cost of his LED lamp could plummet to $22, as they won’t incur heavy import duties. “But we need close to $5 million for this,” he says. “And investments are difficult to come by.”

Mr. Chaddha says he has also asked the government to exempt the lamps from such duties, but to no avail.

An entrepreneur who made his money in plastics, Chaddha has poured his own money into the project, providing the initial installations free of charge. As he looks to make the project self-sustainable, he recognizes that it’s only urban markets – which have also shown an avid interest in LED lighting – that can pay. The rural markets in India can’t afford it, he says, until the prices are brought down.

The rural markets would be able to afford it, says Mr. Irvine-Halliday, if they had access to micro-credit. He says that in Tembisa, a shanty town in Johannesburg, he found that almost 10,000 homes spent more than $60 each on candles and paraffin every year. As calculations revealed, these families can afford to purchase a solid state lighting system in just over a year of paying per week what they would normally spend on candles and paraffin – if they have access to micro-credit.

LUTW is in the process of creating such a micro-credit facility for South Africa. “Then more than 4 million homes in South Africa will be able to afford this lighting system,” he says.

In villages neighboring Khadakwadi, the newly installed LED lamps are a subject of envy, even for those connected to the grid. Those connected to the grid have to face power cuts up to 6 or 7 hours a day. Constant energy shortages and blackouts are a common problem due to a lack of power plants, transmission, and distribution losses caused by old technology and illegal stealing of electricity from the grid.

LED systems require far less maintenance, a longer life, and as villagers jokingly say, “no electricity bills.”

The lamps provided by GSBF have enough power to provide just four hours of light a day. But that’s enough for people to get their work done in the early hours of the night, and is more reliable than light generated off India’s electrical grid.

Villagers are educated by GSBF officials to make the most of the new lamps. An official from GSBF instructs Jadhav and his family to clean the lamp regularly. “Its luminosity and life will diminish if you let the dust settle on it,” he warns them.

Such admonishments aren’t taken lightly by villagers here, lest they be thrust into darkness again. The villagers don’t fail to acknowledge how these lamps have lit up their dark lives and reversed their fortunes.

Before the LED lamps came, spending Rs. 40 (a little less than a dollar) each month on kerosene was too much. Jadhav earns just Rs. 50 a day as a contract laborer, and supports a family of five. “Now the money saved,” he says with a smile, “goes into the children’s education.”

Source: The Christian Science Monitor, Anuj Chopra (link opens in a new window)