India’s Sundarbans mangroves: a case study for solar power

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India’s Sundarbans mangroves have been at the forefront of low-carbon solar energy for 30 years, but the region may become one of the first to feel the impact of global warming.

In the Sundarbans mangroves of eastern India, solar power is not an environmentally conscious luxury but the only viable source of electricity.

“It was like a curfew at dark earlier,” said Tapan Mandal of Rabat Jubilee village. “But today the village has a new life after sunset. Households are abuzz with activities and shops stay open till late.”

Thirteen million people live on the forest fringes among the mazes of salty waterways. Home to the Bengal tiger and several national parks, the magnificent ecosystem is a UNESCO world heritage site.

But grid power cannot be transmitted to the remote and scattered islands, leaving the local population dependent on other sources including kerosene, but also solar power.

The necessity has turned the region into a showcase for India’s renewable energy drive, with more than 1 million people in the mangrove delta now using solar electricity.

The first solar lighting system was installed in 1993 for 100 families by local authorities.

Now solar power covers around 40 per cent of the population, said SP Gon Chaudhuri, the former director of the state renewable energy agency, which was responsible for launching the project.

In Rabat Jubilee, Mandal is the secretary of the cooperative council that runs the village’s solar network, set up by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2011.

The network connects 63 out of the around 100 households, and provides enough power for each house to have a light and a fan for eight hours after dark.

The extra power also helps businesses. Harshit Sarkar, 30, said he can earn an extra 1,000 rupees (15 dollars) a day at his shop repairing mobile phones, televisions and other electronics.

It also keeps tigers and other wild animals away from the settlement, reducing conflict with humans, which is why the WWF supports the project in Rabat Jubilee and three nearby villages.

The number of tiger attacks in the lit villages fell to one last year, compared to the dozens killed or maimed in previous years, WWF project officer Debmalya Roy Chowdhury said.

In addition to the publicly funded projects, more than 100,000 individuals have brought private solar panels for 10,000 rupees (150 dollars), which have become a common sight on the huts’ thatched roofs, and solar-lighting systems have become a common wedding gift.

India recently declared its objective to ramp up grid-connected solar power projects from 20 gigawatts (GW) today to 100 GW by 2022.

In a related development, battery kits were issued to 175 households and businesses in the hamlet of Sardarpara for the subsidised rental of 180 rupees per month, which they charge with solar-generated electricity from the local charging station.

“Solar power has brought us out of the dark ages,” villager Shyampad Mandal said. “Everyone has mobiles and households have TV sets, we get connected to the world outside. And our children can study late into the evenings.”

The region’s adoption by necessity of low-carbon technology has made it one of the lowest per-capita emittors of greenhouse gases in the world.

Paradoxically, its location also means it will be one of the first to feel the impact of global warming, as an increase in sea-borne storms or rise in water levels will hit low-lying coastal areas first.

“People from the cities pollute the planet while Sundarbans uses clean energy and does not have a single industrial plant,” Gon Chaudhuri said. “People here seem to ask the city-dwellers, ‘Why are you destroying us, what is our fault?'”

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