The village council of Odanthurai in Tamil Nadu has set a benchmark by successfully using wind, solar and biogas to not only lower energy costs but to also turn a surplus
The area governed by Odanthurai village council in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu was once poverty stricken, lacking energy access, water supply and even adequate housing. Things changed in 1996, when K. Shanmugam, a local farmer, was elected as council president.
A winding road flanked by coconut trees and thick banana plantations leads to the farm of Shanmugam, former panchayat (village council) leader of Odanthurai in the Mettupalayam administrative block. Odanthurai panchayat is on the foothills of Western Ghats, 40km from Coimbatore city.
Shanmugam won local body elections as an independent candidate in 1996. As he battled to bring in basic development in the villages such as better access to drinking water, metalled roads and sanitation, it came at the cost of higher electricity bills. “The electricity bill was only INR 2,000 (USD 30) when I joined, and it increased to INR 150,000 (USD 2,220) in just two years,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “This was due to installation of 500 street lights, drinking water plant, new motors, booster stations, filtering points, etc.”
As much as 60% of the councils expenditure was spent of power bills and Shanmugam found it difficult to find money for other developmental work in the villages. The high cost electricity pushed him to look at alternative sources of energy.
To run the local drinking water plant, he set up a 9 KW biomass gasifier system. The gasifier substituted grid electricity, saving pumping cost by almost 70%. For running the gasifier at low cost, villagers procured wood waste from a sawmill.
“We purchased waste wood at INR 0.60 per kg. At that time, the cost of electricity per unit was INR 3.50, and we saved 50% of the energy cost,” Shanmugam said. “In couple of years, the wood waste price increased to INR 3.50 per kilo, and a unit of electricity cost Rs 1.75. Since it made sense to use grid electricity, we discontinued the biomass gasifier to operate the drinking water plant.”
Shanmugam says the total energy needs of the panchayat could be met through high-capacity biomass gasifier units. However, that can happen only if the prices of raw materials are stable and favourable.
For streetlights, the former panchayat president installed a 2 KW solar system. Shanmugam was convinced about installing solar streetlights after attending a renewable energy conference. In 2001, he installed solar lights in two villages of the panchayat, saving INR 5,000 in energy costs.
Although he no longer sits in the council, he aims to bring in solar panels to power every house in the village. “Solar energy can be used to run motors and streetlights in the future,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The power from electricity board can then be only a standby option.”
Council buys windmill
Shanmugam’s experience in small, decentralised energy projects through solar and biomass gasifier was a learning experience. He understood the possibilities of renewable energy projects and the benefits it could bring to local residents, and he looked at bigger ventures with lower risks.
As the panchayat population increased, the demand for energy also increased. And Shanmugam found wind to be the only option. Geographically, the panchayat is located close to windy areas. “I saw various private companies investing in windmills and then I thought, why can’t we install it for the panchayat?”
He convinced council members to invest in a 350 KW windmill, which dramatically changed the economic dynamics of the area and led to its all-round development.
The windmill not only provided electricity to the rural residents but also generated a surplus, which the council sold to the state electricity board, and then used the earnings to fund other development projects in area.
Instead of installing a wind turbine within the panchayat, the council purchased a turbine in a wind farm called Maivadi, 140 km away from their area in 2006. This was seen as a one-of-its-kind initiative from a panchayat as private companies owned all wind turbines in that area.
The council decided to produce their electricity rather than depend on the state electricity board. “The panchayat had a savings of INR 4 million. The cost of the windmill was INR 15.5 million,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “A nationalised bank offered us the loan, lauding our efforts.”
The windmill, with a capacity of 350 KW, produced 645,000 units of electricity. However, the energy demand in the council villages was only 450,000 units. “We sold the surplus power to the state electricity board and the money from this was used to pay off the bank loan,” said Shanmugam.
Every month, the village council paid INR 165,000 as instalment and received an annual income of INR 1.9 million by selling surplus energy to the state electricity board.
Although wind energy here is produced in surplus, it cannot be given for electricity in rural homes. “We cannot directly use the wind power to supply electricity for homes. This is because wind power is a through high-tension (HT) line, which is typically used for heavy power consumption in industries. The electricity that is supplied for homes is that of low tension (LT),” Shanmugam said. “If the wind energy from the turbine has be used, HT line need to be converted into LT line, and this can be done only by the electricity board.”
Shanmugam believes that installing windmills is something every local body should undertake. “Then there will be no talk of energy poverty. We have the ability do it. However, this is possible only if there is no corruption in the local body. It is also important that we do not keep blaming the government from not providing facilities in the village,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The panchayats in India should take steps to address development on their own. If this can be done in Odanthurai, it can be done anywhere in India. This is possible with funds from local people, government and bank loan.”
“If we can integrate these funds, we can provide energy through solar power to all the villages here,” he said. “If this happens, we will be become a model panchayat for leading the non-conventional energy movement with zero power cuts.”