In August 2014, Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visited Dharnai village in Jehanabad district of Bihar to inaugurate a 100-kilowatt solar mini-grid in the village that would supply electricity. Dharnai had no electricity since 1981. The project was showcased as a gamechanger for the state.

Today, the grid project site has turned into a cattle shed.

After the initial enthusiasm, once the solar batteries stopped working, there were no repairs or maintenance and the village subsequently got connected to the thermal power grid where electricity was accessible at a cheaper rate. With this, the sun set on the solar dreams of Dharnai.

At the now-defunct project site, the villagers told Mongabay-India that when Nitish Kumar came to inaugurate the project, some people protested against it, demanding grid-connected electricity or asli bijli (“real” power) rather than solar energy, which they termed as nakli bijli (“fake” electricity).

The Chief Minister, in his speech at that time, told the villagers that thermal power is derived from coal, a resource that would diminish over time. It was only renewable energy like solar energy that would be a pure form of energy.

“After almost 30 years of darkness, it was the first time that the village had seen electricity and it was because of solar energy, 72-year-old Ran Vijay Sharma told Mongabay-India. “So there was a strong affinity towards it in the initial days. But even this solar installation came after around 45 households had moved applications (five years ago) in the electricity department seeking power connections.”

‘First solar village’

Sharma recalled the day of the project’s inauguration. It was a major event and with the Chief Minister himself at the village, everyone including local politicians, bureaucrats, media and people from nearby villages were in attendance. The village was showcased as the “first solar village” of the state, said Sharma, adding that the inauguration was followed by visits of senior bureaucrats, tourists, international visitors and others.

The project was funded by environmental NGO Greenpeace with support from other organisations such as the Center for Environment and Energy Development and Basix, a livelihood promotion institution. Rooftop solar systems were installed on the roof of the farmer training centre, panchayat building, anganwadi centres, mini-stadium and other major community buildings of the village.

When asked about the benefits from the project, Anil Kumar, another resident of Dharnai, told Mongabay-India, “It brought many changes in the social life of the village.”

“Kids were able to study late, families were able to cook at night, anti-social elements started keeping away and deaths due to snake bites started going down due to street lights powered by solar power,” Kumar said.

A man crosses close to the anganwadi centre where solar panels on rooftops were installed in 2014. These are now defunct. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/Mongabay

Under the project, the street lights were powered with solar power while connections and meters were given to all households for their basic electricity needs. This included 70% household work and 30% agriculture work. The project also ensured the installation of solar pumps in selected farms as a demonstration exercise.

Short stint

The 2014 solar power project was a boon for Dharnai village, which had no electricity until then. But it wasn’t long after things started going downhill.

“As soon as we got solar power connections, there were also warnings to not use high power electrical appliances like television, refrigerator, motor and others,” said a villager while requesting anonymity. “These conditions are not there if you use thermal power. Then what is the use of such a power? The solar energy tariff was also higher compared to thermal power.”

The village got access to thermal power two years after the solar power project was set up in 2014. With the penetration of thermal power, villagers could use high voltage electrical appliances, that too at a cheaper rate.

Subsequently, three years after the inauguration, the solar mini-grid started collapsing. “In the first three years, it worked well and people were using it,” Ravi Kumar, a shopkeeper from the village, told Mongabay-India while pointing towards the installed infrastructure. “But after three years the batteries were exhausted and it was never repaired. So now, while the solar rooftops, CCTV cameras and other infrastructure are intact, the whole system has become a showpiece for us. No one uses solar power anymore here. The glory of Dharnai has ended.”

This mini-grid with rooftop-mounted solar panels is visible as one travels from Gaya to Patna on the National Highway-83. The village is close to the highway and just about 90 km from Patna, the state’s capital city.

When Mongabay-India visited the site of the solar mini-grid, it saw that it had been turned into a cattle shed. Paddy straw was piled up around the building, spider webs engulfed the CCTV cameras mounted over the solar panels, metal rods supporting the panels developed rust and thick layers of dust covered the surface of the solar panels.

While the solar grid is shut down in the village now, a few solar pumps, installed on the farmlands in the village, are still operational and maintained by the farmers. Kamal Kishore, one of the beneficiaries of solar pumps, said, “It was given to me free of cost by Greenpeace and I have been using it since then,” he told Mongabay-India. “I am using solar power now free of cost to irrigate my land. As it is used in the daytime, there is no requirement of batteries and it has been working smoothly.”

Aviram Sharma from the Nalanda University, Rajgir, Bihar, in his 2020 study of the village, found that while in 2014 there were 225 connections of solar energy in the four villages in the Dharnai panchayat, the numbers came down to 126 in 2016. He also cited costs as one of the reasons for the village abandoning the use of solar power. Solar power cost Rs 9 per unit while conventional (thermal) energy, which became available soon after the solar setup, was at a much cheaper rate of Rs 3 per unit.

Lessons from Dharnai

The Center for Environment and Energy Development, which worked on the project to mobilise the community to use solar energy, said that it could not be termed as a failed project.

Ramapati Kumar, CEO of the Center for Environment and Energy Development, told Mongabay-India that “if you consider this as a failed project you fail to realise the social transformation the project brought in the village”.

“The project first showed how decentralised solar projects can work in such areas,” he said. “It exposed the state to the idea of the utility of solar energy for the state.”

“It was for demonstration purpose and suffered later due to upkeep issues,” he said. “Lives and safety of women, study and job prospects of youths and many other aspects of lives here save major change with the penetration of solar energy in the village.”

Defunct solar panels on a building on the campus of a mini-stadium in the village. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/ Mongabay

Kumar said that adequate infrastructure is still present there and there was only an issue with the batteries. “If the batteries could be replaced, the project could see revival,” he added.

However, one lesson that could be learnt from the Dharnai model is that if an off-grid solar project is not connected with the main power grid once electricity reaches unelectrified villages, the infrastructure and funds used in installation of such off-grid plants could prove futile.

Sources involved in the project claim that the power distribution companies were ready to include the solar power into the grid in 2015 -2016 itself even though net metering concept was not prescribed in the state policy which came only in 2017 in the form of State’s Renewable Energy Policy.

Sources said that the villagers had electricity before 1981 but they lost the connection after a transformer stopped working and due to other issues such as power theft. “So, when the grid integration of solar mini-grid was planned with thermal in 2015, the villagers opposed it they felt if they lose thermal like what happened in 1981, at least they would still have solar energy to support them,” they said.

Government officials refused to comment on the issue citing no role of the government in the project. However, talks of reviving the project among the voluntary organisations and government bodies often takes place but, so far, no concrete decision has been taken.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.