Yash Tarwadi, 25, is a chemical engineer based in Surat in Gujarat. Four years ago, he along with three other like-minded engineers came together to develop a solar energy-based desalination plant that could be used to convert seawater into potable water, which could grow into a model for improving drinking water access in coastal states like Gujarat.
Like Tarwadi’s enterprise, Solnce Technologies, many startup companies across India have ventured into the clean energy sector, developing innovations for the agricultural sector and rural households.
Solnce Technologies introduced its desalination plant, Sol-Evo, in 2018. It also started a pilot project and installed its standalone unit at Olpad, a coastal village, around 30 kilometres away from Surat, a city about 300 km away from the state’s capital Gandhinagar.
“In Olpad, people used to bring water tankers to get drinking water,” Tarwadi told Mongabay-India. “Their underground water was highly saline with TDS [Total Dissolved Solids] reaching around 800 mg/l. This is the reality of several rural and urban areas like Chennai, where despite a huge source of seawater, the people there are forced to buy water or depend on the government for the same.”
“One option is to use the conventional sources of electricity derived from polluting sources of energy like coal,” he added. “Here people use thermal electricity and a Reverse Osmosis-based solution which is not a sustainable solution. Everybody knows that relying on RO filters can lead to usage of electricity and it would also eject several litres of waste high saline water which is harmful and can pose a threat to the environment too.”
He explained that as many rural coastal villages suffer from irregular electricity, solar-based solutions are suitable and clean. From the solar thermal plant, Tarwadi’s startup has been able to convert 1500 litres of seawater to potable water, every day.
The innovative technology was certified by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration. In 2020, the startup won the United Nations Development Programme’s Innovations award for Sustainable Development Goals. The startup is now looking for more handholding support to expand its operations across India and make its innovation commercially viable.
Another startup, Pune-based AgriVijay, which was co-founded by Vimal Panjwani and his mother in 2020, uses solar energy-based agricultural solutions to help farmers in rural Maharashtra with their farming-related work. Using solar energy also helps in cutting down electricity costs, which can ultimately lead to overall savings.
The startup develops solar pumps, biogas digesters and other solar energy-based farm equipment through which it is aiming to address the agrarian issues in drought-prone Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of the state.
Giving an example of how these solutions help farmers, Panjwani told Mongabay-India, “In Maharashtra, there are many vegetable farmers and dairy workers. We introduced solar cold storage and solar drier systems which help in increasing the shelf life of farm produce.”
In several rural areas, there are issues with electricity supply. Some crops like sugarcane need regular irrigation and their yield can be hit in case a farmer is dependent only on the monsoon, said Panjwani. “Solar water pumps are helping in reducing losses and improving yields in such cases,” he explained.
Panjwani, however, lamented that the share of solar energy in the rural market is low. He started the startup with his mother after having industry experience for some years. Panjwani has an engineering degree and a masters degree in business administration in agri-business. He was incubated at the Atal Incubation Centre at Baramati in Maharashtra, an initiative started by the NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s federal think tank, to promote entrepreneurship.
“We were interested in something for the farmers of our start-up and thus went on to bring in new solutions based on clean energy to make it more viable for rural setups,” said Panjwani, adding that the advantage of solar energy is mainly that it is a cleaner alternative to polluting sources of energy and helps in saving electricity costs.
In India, the conversation around renewable energy and the changes it can bring, is largely limited to either mega solar or wind projects or the lowering of per unit tariff achieved in auctions. But behind these large projects, there are many people silently working on clean energy-based solutions to bring change in the lives of the people.
For instance, take the case of Minushri Madhumita and Amrita Jagatdeo, two childhood friends from the Kalahandi district in Odisha, which is considered one of the backward districts of the country. In 2016, the duo started Thinkraw to help the farmers in Kalahandi and other parts of the country by integrating information technology solutions and renewable energy for increasing production, reducing losses and saving costs.
“I left my IT job in 2013 and started exploring opportunities to integrate technologies in the farming sector which is otherwise very labour-intensive,” Madhumita told Mongabay-India. “We came up with several solutions based on clean energy. In India, agricultural labourers are often females which, we, as a women-led startup understood well and wanted to help women go beyond the drudgery of farming activities.”
Their New Delhi-based startup developed Krishi Dhanu, a clean energy product where solid fertilisers are dispensed using a solar-based machine uniformly by ensuring no harm to the people who are involved in such work.
“Usually, the women agricultural labourers would mix water into fertilisers and carry the fertiliser box in one hand while they used their other hand to spray it on the farm,” she said. “We came up with the solid fertiliser dispenser which can run with the help of batteries charged with 100 watts of solar panels. It reduces the health hazards and hardships of agricultural labourers. With this, we were able to save water too.”
Another product their startup came up with was Dhivra Mitra, an equipment run by energy from a floating solar panel that ensures aeration of water every day to maintain optimum levels of dissolved oxygen in ponds for better fish production. The system also helps in examining the pH levels of the water and levels of dissolved oxygen in the water body using sensors attached to it. The pH levels help in identifying the acidic levels of water.
According to a study released last year by the Hurun Research Institute, India is the third-largest startup ecosystem after the United States and China. While the union government has been helping the startups with the patent and other support through the Startup India mission, several institutes like IITs and others are grooming startups with their incubation centres which provide mentorship, infrastructure, patent and funding support. The NITI Aayog is also giving financial support to institutions for such incubation centres to promote entrepreneurship.
Reducing import dependence
In addition to clean energy startups working on solutions for environmental issues and the farming sector, there are some enterprises focused on solar energy for urban areas with a broader goal of reducing India’s dependence on the import of solar products from other countries.
Exalta India is one such example of a clean energy sector startup that was started in 2015 by Ashutosh Verma. The startup, incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, produced India’s first solar-based Direct Current Air Conditioner. It has now found takers in institutes in India and abroad.
“We are among the first Indian outlets to launch solar-based air conditioners,” Verma told Mongabay-India. “Earlier there was a higher dependency on China for such products. Such air conditioners work with solar energy with DCs, without any battery. It was helpful for resorts and other places in remote areas.”
“We found several takers for our air conditioners too which can now be found at Devi temple in Mathura, ISKCON temple Noida, Manesar Hero Honda complex (in Haryana) and many other institutions across India,” Verma said. “We have also been able to export it to countries like Dubai and Afghanistan.”
This solar air conditioner could be operated with a 2 kilowatt of solar power. Verma said that his efforts were bolstered with the support of the Indian government and IIT Kanpur grants which helped his venture expand.
The clean energy sector’s dependency on import of solar equipment from China, is still a main challenge for clean energy startups in India, according to Verma.
“We are still dependent on China for several parts in renewable energy,” he said. “Due to their infrastructure, they are able to do mass production. In India, if we promote Made in India products and increase manufacturing hubs we can reduce the costs and reduce the dependency on foreign countries.”
“Moreover, imported products often add more costs due to other duties and charges, leading to escalated prices for the consumer, which the Made in India startups can try to address,” he said.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.