March 23, 2012
Solar panels glitter in the sun atop virtually every roof in Leh, the capital of India’s Ladakh region in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Leh gets more than 320 clear sunny days in a year and is poised to be the country’s solar energy leader as its people happily embrace the cleaner, cheaper energy option.
Life in the arid expanses of the region – which is in Jammu and Kashmir state and borders China and Pakistan – is tough with extremely cold and long winters and low precipitation. But the government’s solar energy initiative has provided some respite to the people as they combat the elements.
With their dependence on fossil fuels, the people of Ladakh had an environmental burden and an economic one. But the situation is slowly changing as technology helps tap the energy potential of the sun which keeps shining over this cold desert.
For decades, the norm was diesel generators for lighting and kerosene and firewood for water-heating and cooking. This not only polluted the atmosphere but also involved huge finances for transporting fuel to Ladakh, given its remoteness and its rugged terrain.
“Ladakh being a cold desert, we don’t have any forests. So all the timber would come from Kashmir while diesel and kerosene would come from the plains at a heavy cost,” said Jigmet Takpa, project director of Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency (LREDA), which works with the government of India under its solar mission programme.
Now, he added, the situation has changed dramatically because of the US$87 million project of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.
Solar for export
The spread of a solar energy network is not only fulfilling the energy needs of Ladakhis but could potentially provide solar energy to other parts of the country too, given the favourable climatic conditions in Ladakh.
“Things have changed quite rapidly. All the hotels and households in Ladakh are using solar energy for lighting and water-heating while many of them are using solar cookers as well,” Takpa told thethirdpole.net.
“Ladakh is in close proximity with god,” he quipped.
“It has the highest insolation, which means the intensity of the solar radiation is highest. Every square metre of our land has the potential of generating 1,200 watts of solar power, which is the highest in India,” Takpa said.
“Also, the outside temperature in Ladakh is low which enables the solar panels to work better. When the outside temperature goes high, the efficiency of the solar panels gets reduced; that is why we are regarded as the best for solar energy.”
“The people of Ladakh are quite inclined towards sun’s energy which gets reflected in most of our devotional songs. Now the availability of technology is helping us having the fruits of our devotion to sunlight,” he said.
The Indian government aims to generate 400,000 MWs of solar energy between 2030 and 2050; of this, 100,000 MWs will be generated from Ladakh.
“As of now, we have already installed 137 small solar power plants; they have been set up for remote villagers, monasteries, educational institutions and hospitals,” Takpa said.
The impact of the solar energy initiative is visible and quantifiable. Over 40 villages, which were either un-electrified or had extremely unreliable sources of power, have been provided with reliable solar energy and solar water heaters.
A solar water heating system can be seen mounted on virtually every household and hotel in picturesque Leh town. Outside many households are solar cooking apparatuses, a sign that the dependence on diesel, kerosene and firewood has been remarkably reduced in the sparsely populated region that has a population of 300,000, including tourists.
According to LREDA figures, 1,150,000 litres per day of solar water heating systems have replaced electric geysers and kerosene or diesel based boilers. Besides, 4,500 domestic solar cooking systems have helped overcome the dependence on liquefied petroleum gas and biomass.
The government’s decision to subsidise solar energy operated devices by 50% for schools, residential houses and hotels or guesthouses has played a big role. Government offices enjoy 90% subsidy for installing solar based energy systems.
Tashi Tundup, owner of Blue Sky guest house in Leh, proudly shows his solar heating and solar cooking system. “I had to pay Rs.70,000 (US$1,200). The rest came by way of subsidy,” he said.
“It saves me all that hard work and recurring costs which would go in heating the water for our guests,” he added. The guest house has 11 rooms.
The initial investment, in his view, was more than worth it.
“Though I had to spend a good amount of money to buy it that is a one-time investment and so quite cheap and hassle-free.”
There could be more in store for Ladakhis.
LREDA is working with Japan’s Panasonic for turning residential and commercial buildings in Ladakh into smart homes.
“This is all about energy management and efficient energy consumption to be achieved by smart home technology which we are getting absolutely free of cost from Japan,” Takpa said.
LREDA is also working with the German government’s development agency GIZ for heating buildings by using solar energy.
Clearly, sunny prospects ahead for this remote region in India’s northwest corner.