Barapitha, a tribal village situated close to the metro city of Bhubhaneshwar in Odisha, had no access to electricity until 2015. On Gandhi Jayanti on October 2, that year, the village witnessed a large gathering of local government officials, members from National Aluminium Company Limited, a public sector utility, local politicians and residents from Barapitha and nearby areas. This event was organised to celebrate Barapitha as “Odisha’s first 100% solar village”.
With solar energy powering the village, it brought in a slew of lifestyle improvements for the citizens.
However, the once-celebrated designation of a fully solar village, soon phased out. There was no maintenance of the mini solar plant, specifically after it was hit hard by Cyclone Fani in 2017.
Grid-connected electricity then made an entry to the village and now, over five years later, each of the 60 households of the village is connected to the grid. The mini solar energy plant remains non-operational.
Barapitha was established around five decades ago when tribes such Hembram, Santhal, Hoe and others settled in the area. People of these tribes came from other areas of the state like Mayurbhanj an Keonjhar and also from other states such as Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. Most of the villagers are daily wage labourers.
Barapitha is located close to the Chandaka Wildlife Sanctuary, barely a kilometre from the popular Deras dam. “This is a tribal village which is very close to a wildlife sanctuary,” Bishwanath, 21, from the Barapitha, told Mongabay-India. “Before 2015, most of the households used to go to sleep by 5 pm to avoid encounters with wild animals such as elephants and snakes in the dark. After solar energy electrified the village, its fate changed completely.”
With electrification via solar energy, the residents could now access opportunities that they did not have earlier – with solar street lights, for example, people could venture out of their houses even during the night, they had more time to do household chores, children could study even after it became dark and a sense of safety against human-animal conflict situations and criminal activities prevailed, Bishwanath added.
Further, mobile phones and electrical appliances became common in the village. Bipin Kumar Singh, another resident of Barapitha, said, “Before 2015, the villages hardly used mobile phones and electric appliances.”
“The few households that did have mobile phones would charge them in Bhubaneshwar markets for a fee,” Singh told Mongabay-India while adding that these practices changed after the solar power project was introduced. “Some who had televisions and chargeable lights had batteries at their homes but most others at that time were using oil-based lanterns for their work at night.”
Women of the village claimed that the project helped them in different ways. “Earlier, we used to fear venturing out at night,” Subadhra Biswal, a teenager from the village, told Mongabay-India. “Going and returning from tuitions was tough for the girls due to dark roads. Women also used to finish off their cooking and other household chores by the evening. All these things changed after electricity came in the form of solar energy.”
Compared to other decentralised models of solar energy, this village was given a unique disaster-resilient model where the solar panels were foldable that could be folded easily by anybody during extreme weather events such as cyclones, which were a regular feature in the state due to its proximity to the Bay of Bengal.
The local single-room community hall was equipped with a television set and dish antenna so that people could watch the news and keep a tab on the weather conditions to take timely action like folding the solar panels during strong winds. The developers of the project had warned the villagers against using heavy appliances like refrigerators, coolers and others with solar energy and urged them to use the power mostly at night.
According to the latest data from the Central Electricity Authority, till December 2021, Odisha has the highest installed capacity (597.04 megawatts) of renewable energy in eastern India.
Within three years of the installation, the solar power project collapsed and since then it has not been repaired again. Villagers claimed that during cyclone Fani in 2017, the system collapsed and the batteries also became defunct.
The residents soon gave up their reliance on solar power and shifted to grid-connected energy which had entered the village by then (the source of the grid energy is not identified).
“When cyclone Fani hit the state with its strong cyclonic storm, the system collapsed as it suffered damage,” Singh added. “Since then, it has never been repaired.”
“As the villagers had no idea about this, we failed to revive it,” Singh added. “Some technicians who examined this told us that there were some issues with the inverter and batteries. The system now lies defunct. We also feel sad that the first solar village is now not using solar power.”
Now, all the 60 households in the village are grid-connected the solar energy system is lying non-operational. The village residents blamed non-maintenance and lack of training provided to them, behind the failure of the solar project.
“The system was unique for a coastal state like Odisha,” Bagun Bandra, a daily wage labourer from the village, told Mongabay-India. “It had a special foldable system to ensure its safety during cyclones. There was also a lightning arresting system close to the solar mini-grid. But cyclone Fani took a toll on it and after that it stopped functioning. Now, no one uses solar power in this solar village. It was never repaired.”
The project was installed with a collaboration of the National Aluminium Company, a government company under the Ministry of Mines and private solar project and battery developers. According to the NALCO website, each household under the project was given two solar operated lights and a mobile charging point while solar street lights illuminated the village road. It claims that masthead lights were installed in the village primary school and Anganwadi centre where the solar mini-grid was put up.
At the time of publishing this piece, the National Aluminium Company had not responded to queries sent to them by Mongabay-India on the issue.
Solar technical experts claimed that maintenance is very crucial in any solar project and lack of this can not only reduce its efficiency but also reduce its shelf life.
“Usually most components of a solar plant come with a warranty,” Sharthak Shankar Bhagat, co-founder of Whitesharks, a Bhubaneswar-based solar developer, told Mongabay-India. “While solar panels last usually for 25 years batteries and inverters usually have five years of warranty. However, regular maintenance including cleaning of panels, checking battery fluid levels and others are needed to ensure the quality and life of solar plants. Non-maintenance can reduce its efficiency down by upto 60% within a few days and affect its longevity.”
He also cited the example of several defunct solar street lights in many rural and other areas due to lack of maintenance and lack of reporting of defunct units. “In several parts of the country, several solar projects have failed because there is a lack of a central monitoring system to ensure authorities repair them in time and prevent them from being idle. This should be the mandate especially in government projects.”
Bhagat emphasised that solar project related work requires precise skills and the local electricians who do not have these skills cannot repair it. He stated the maintenance-related works should be well-documented when the solar projects are being started and special focus and budget should be mentioned during its commencement.
India has been focusing on large solar power projects as well as decentralised solar solutions to take power to distant areas. However, issues such as poor maintenance and absence of follow up from administration have created situations where such projects are becoming defunct.
Barapitha is not the only village in India, where the decentralised solar energy model failed. In Bihar too, in the state’s first model solar village, Dharnai, defunct solar batteries were never replaced, making the whole system a failure after three years of its operation. In both the cases of Baripatha in Odisha and Dharnai in Bihar, lack of maintenance is the primary reason that solar power has not survived.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.