Rows of grey cement blocks look like gravestones in an abandoned cemetery. The dilapidated single-storeyed house, adjacent to a field, seems like a setting for a horror film.

Less than a decade ago, the cement blocks here served as bases for solar panels, part of a 110 kilowatts solar plant, which was housed in the building. When commissioned in 2003, it was one of the largest off-grid power plants in the country.

The place is Indrapur, a remote village on West Bengal’s G-Plot, one of the last islands of the Sundarbans before the Bay of Bengal starts. Here, grid-connected electricity came as late as 2018. Before that, came the solar microgrid, funded by West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority and implemented by Tata Power, with the latter celebrating the success story even a decade after it was setup. Between 1996 and 2006, the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority had installed 17 such solar power microgrids in the Sundarbans.

Initially, the microgrid in Indrapur would supply power for five hours a day, with three to five points in every household, for a monthly subscription of Rs. 80 and Rs. 120, respectively. After the cyclone Aila inflicted damages in 2009, the capacity came down to three hours a day. By 2013-’14, according to the local residents, the power station was defunct.

What caused the power station to shut down remains uncertain.

According to a retired West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority officer, who did not want to be named, the problem started when some beneficiaries stopped the payment of monthly bills. Meanwhile, local residents claim that because of the plant’s decreased capacity, some shopkeepers switched to diesel generators.

Cement blocks that once supported a solar microgrid unit at Indrapur village on one of the last islands of the Indian Sundarbans. Commissioned in 2003 and defunct since 2013-’14, the microgrid provided electricity to households even before grid-connected power arrived around 2018. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/ Mongabay

“The project was initially managed by a private agency but later the management and maintenance were handed over to the local community. Since then, there had been many troubles and eventually, the plant stopped functioning by 2013-’14,” Manibhushan Bera, a local resident and fisherman, told Mongabay-India, as he waited for his turn at a local grocery shop. Mongabay-India’s emails to Tata Power, asking about the management arrangement and present status of the solar microgrid in Indrapur, remained unanswered.

While the precise reason for the shutdown is unclear, by 2014, the beneficiaries – 120 households and 180 shops – switched back to diesel, kerosene as well as existing rooftop solar panels. Rooftop solar was already common in Indrapur prior to the solar microgrid project – and well before grid-connected electricity came there. The panels had been distributed either by the energy development authority or the gram panchayats at a subsidised rate, while some were personally purchased by the residents.

In the Indian Sundarbans, a landscape characterised by small to large islands amidst crisscrossing, wide and wild rivers headed for the sea, the arrival of grid-connected power in 2018 did reduce the dependence on solar energy in most parts. But it did not make solar energy redundant. Local residents knew its importance from their experiences.

Every time there is a cyclone, the power supply is disrupted for days to weeks – cyclone Bulbul in 2019, Amphan in 2020 and Yash in 2021. That is why more than half of the houses maintain their own rooftop solar panels.

“Individual solar panels came of great help in the aftermath of the cyclones,” said Basanta Naskar, a resident of Bagdanga in Mousuni, another remote island at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. “No house that owns a solar power setup would like to discard it.”

A 55-kilowatt solar microgrid was set up at Bagdanga in 2001 and a 110-kilowatt plant at Baliara in 2003, as part of the energy development authority’s decade-long efforts to set up solar microgrids across the Sundarbans.

However, both of these microgrids went defunct by 2012-’13. Like in Indrapur, beneficiaries in the villages of Bagdanga and Baliara too, switched back to kerosene and diesel generators, apart from their rooftop solar setups. Then in 2018, grid-connected power reached the island.

A defunct solar microgrid at Bagdanga in Mousuni island, Sundarbans. The 55-kilowatt microgrid was set up in 2001 and stopped operations in 2012-’13. Several islands in India’s Sundarbans, once powered by solar microgrids, are now home to about two dozen abandoned units. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/ Mongabay

In 2022, rows of solar panels – some broken, some intact – occupy land adjacent to dilapidated buildings that once housed the power stations in the two villages. The buildings are now occupied by the family of the person who worked as the operator when it was functional – the family of Chandan Ruidas in Bagdanga and that of Tapan Das in Baliara. The families have refused to vacate the premises despite the poor state of the building, arguing that they stopped receiving their payments all of a sudden in 2012.

“Let them clear our dues and we will leave,” said Das’s wife Arati. At Bagdanga, Ruidas echoed her.


Missed opportunity

There is no doubt that the introduction of grid-connected power, less than five years ago, has already been of great help to the local people in improving their quality of life. But did it have to come at the cost of discarding the existing off-grid renewable power generation facilities?

“No,” SP Gon Chaudhuri, one of India’s renowned solar energy experts, told Mongabay-India, “But that is exactly what happened, resulting in the Sundarbans missing an opportunity to reduce carbon footprint.”

Chaudhuri, a winner of the Ashden Award (United Kingdom) and Eurosolar Award (Germany) among many recognitions, was part of the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority until he retired in 2009 and played an instrumental role in the microgrid installations in the Sundarbans. He later served the energy development authority in an advisory capacity.

The West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority had, over a period of ten years from 1996 to 2006, installed 17 solar power plants in Sundarbans, with a cumulative installed capacity of 872.5 kilowatts.

More were added to the list thereafter. Sagar island alone had 11 microgrids but none of them functions today, legislator from Sagar island, Bankim Hazra, who is also the Sundarban Development Minister, confirmed to Mongabay-India. Most such installations by non-government agencies, too, met with the same fate.

Overall, considering all the initiated microgrids together, the Sundarbans could have generated over one megawatt of solar energy – an opportunity gone begging.

While the microgrids failed, the individually-owned rooftop solar systems were always and continued to be popular among the residents. The West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority itself had installed over 2,00,000 solar photovoltaic home lighting systems – or rooftop solar panels – in the Sundarbans region.

The beneficiaries had to bear 15%-18% of the unit costs. People in most of the villages on different islands still maintain these units. They require changing the battery every five-six years and the families usually do not shy away from bearing this cost.

This cost is one of the main reasons people express more willingness for rooftop solar rather than microgrid – in rooftop solar setups, the user’s share (usually less than one-fourth) at the time of purchase and changing of battery after four-five years are the only costs.

The West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority director Gautam Majumdar did not respond to queries from Mongabay-India sent over text messages and email.

Solar rooftops on houses in Ghoramara, a rapidly eroding island at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal in Sundarbans. The island does not have grid-connected power and relies entirely on solar rooftops. Photo credit: Subhraji Sen/ Mongabay

“There are many advantages to having solar energy as a supplement to grid-connected power. First, it (Sundarbans) is a cyclone-prone area and power disruptions are routine every April-May-June,” Sujit Sardar, a resident of Rajat Jubilee village on Satjelia island in Lahiripur gram panchayat area, told Mongabay-India.

“And second, it helps keep the (conventional/grid-connected) electricity bills low,” he said. “The lower the consumption, the lower the rate slab. Now that the state government has made quarterly consumption of electricity up to 75 units free, some families having solar alternatives are not paying for conventional power at all.”

Using renewable sources of energy may also contribute to climate change mitigation goals, as it reduces the demand for conventional power, Bipul Sardar, a teacher at the Rajat Jubilee High School, said. The school has a rooftop solar system that helps in running lights, fans and computers in times of power cuts.

Sujit Sardar, a resident of Rajat Jubilee, Gosaba block, where a solar microgrid installed by World Wide Fund India still operates. He said that the combination of solar and grid-connected power results in lower electricity bills. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/ Mongabay

In Satjelia island, the global non-profit World Wildlife Fund, set up four solar DC microgrids and one solar AC microgrid in villages, between 2011-’12 and 2017. In 2020, in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan, the World Wildlife Fund had highlighted how, when the “major part of Sundarbans plunged in darkness even after two weeks of the disaster”, Satjelia island “stood out as an exception” as the “microgrids set up by WWF India held the fort and continued to serve communities in an important life-supporting way”. Sujit Sardar was one of the beneficiaries of the project.

However, Mongabay-India’s visit revealed that, as of March 2022, only the solar AC microgrid at Rajat Jubilee was functional while the four solar DC microgrids in other villages were defunct.

The microgrids that World Wildlife Fund set up at Annpur-Jamespur and Patharpara, both along the river bank, came up in 2017. But both have been lying defunct for the past couple of years, local residents alleged.

In Annpur-Jamespur, the batteries of the street lamps have been taken away by the installing agency, local residents said. In Patharpara, the owner of the land on which the solar panels are set up complained that their land had got caught up in a “useless mess”.

“We could have grown vegetables on this land. We could have kept bees,” said Namita Mondal, wife of Sudhangshu, owner of the land plot. “We want World Wildlife Fund to take the installations back and free our land,” she said.

She thinks that the project failed because it coincided with the arrival of conventional electricity (grid-connected) on the island. “Electricity came only a few months after this solar project started functioning. So, beneficiaries stopped paying the monthly subscription and the power supply was subsequently snapped. It became a useless asset,” said Mondal. Most of the neighbours have rooftop solar setups to fall back on.

A defunct microgrid at Rajat Jubilee, Gosaba block, installed by the World Wildlife Fund. The landowner Namita Mondal, worried about her property lying idle, said that the unit stopped operation after the arrival of grid-connected power. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/ Mongabay

Absence of policy

According to Anurag Danda, a social anthropologist and the director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Sundarbans programme, the failure of microgrids in the Sundarbans came as a result of a lack of policies. He told Mongabay-India that the only way to keep these assets functional was to get them connected to the grid.

“When people had not experienced electricity, a limited amount of electricity was good enough for them,” Danda said. “The moment the grid came, they no longer had the limitations. Why should they pay for a limited supply thereafter?”

“All such assets became redundant due to the lack of a policy in place,” Danda said. “The renewable power generating unit could have directly fed the grid, instead of supplying to individual households.”

Gon Chaudhuri echoed Danda. In fact, as early as 2011 Gon Chaudhuri argued in favour of connecting all off-grid power stations to grid energy, for the sake of sustainability. That was well before grid-connected power came to any of the Sundarbans islands. The government did start installing grid-connected solar facilities from 2010-’11 but in government establishments in and around Kolkata. There was no initiative to connect the existing installations with grids.

“I think it is only due to [lack of] policy that these things are not functional,” Gon Chaudhuri told Mongabay-India, “Taking the grid to those villages was not the right decision. It would have been better had the grid and solar been combined, ie the solar plant feeding the grid.”

Grid infrastructure providing electricity to Gangasagar island in Sundarbans. Before the arrival of grid-connected power, Sundarban’s islands depended on solar microgrids and solar rooftops. As solar microgrids now lie defunct, experts say that the region missed an opportunity to harness the strengths of renewable energy. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/ Mongabay

Both Danda and Gon Chaudhuri highlighted the aspect of developing a sense of ownership among community members as crucial to success. They said that the presence of thousands of individually-owned rooftop solar systems reflects how a similar sense of ownership had not been developed regarding the community assets.

While explaining why the Rajat Jubilee project survived while others failed, Danda said, “Here, of the two-year-schedule, one year and a half was invested to engage the community, to make them understand the nitty-gritty of maintenance and to make them own the power station. The remaining half-year was actually used to construct it.”

Gon Chaudhuri also highlighted the lack of maintenance of infrastructure. “The microgrid systems run smoothly for 6 years-7 years, following which the batteries and some other components need to be changed. But the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority did not do that. They thought, why maintain solar infrastructure when the conventional grid has come? So, Sundarban missed a chance to reduce carbon footprint,” Gon Chaudhuri speculated.

Next big thing

Amidst such missed opportunities, Sundarbans is going to be the home to the country’s largest off-grid solar facility (250 kilowatts) at Ghoramara island, the only island where grid-connected power is yet to reach. It would cost the government a significant amount to take grid-connected power to that sinking and shrinking island – which is home to some 5,000 people – and therefore the government of India approved the solar project, said Gon Chaudhuri who is working with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur on the project.

“This power plant will work because there is no chance the grid will go there,” Gon Chaudhuri said. “At least for the next 10 years, when IIT-Kharagpur will be in charge of maintenance, this power plant will work properly. After that, some community-level programmes will have to come up and the IIT is to devise a system [to keep the project running].”

A woman passes by her house and a non-operational solar-powered street light at Ghoramara island. The house was damaged by cyclone Amphan in May 2020. Photo credit: Subhrajit Sen/ Mongabay

This article first appeared on Mongabay.