Carrick Eggleston and Sarah Strauss, 2012-13, Fulbright-Nehru Teaching and Research Scholars share their fellowship experience studying Energy Transitions in South India!

Energy Transitions in South India and Beyond


Carrick Eggleston and Sarah Strauss
Fulbright-Nehru Teaching and Research Scholars (2012-13)
Pondicherry University and Auroville
Puducherry and Tamil Nadu


The road was paved with grain. Passing traffic offers an energy source to crush and separate crops, so the final kilometers to our destination were covered with grain, some being separated, some drying, some being gathered up in piles. Amazingly, only once were we forced to stop and clear the chaff from the axle and brakes!


Crushing and separating grain using an abundantly available local energy source illustrates the obstacles that face us as we try to shift energy systems in practice. In India, as in so many other places, the poorest have little access to electrical or fuel energy, so that what they use must be immediately available in the local environment and made useful through readily available technology. From another perspective, farmers co-opting the road is a clear act of resistance that asserts their power over the situation, much to the frustration of automobile and truck drivers who seek only to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.


According to my colleagues at Pondicherry University, over 40% of the India population has little or no access to “commercial” energy – electricity, gasoline, etc. We have seen many examples of ways to harness and utilize renewable energy--not because of climate change (though everyone is talking about this year's poor and erratic monsoon), and not even because of reduced cost, but because it is what is available. Aside from the grain-paving, we also encountered many bullock carts on the rural roads. At the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology of the National Institute for Engineering (NIE-CREST) in Mysore, director Dr. S. Shamsundar showed us his modern bullock cart. From the outside, it looks like any other such cart, but underneath, it’s quite different. Old truck parts, including pulleys, belts and an old alternator, charge a 12-volt battery from the cart motion. It's enough to run some lights and charge a mobile phone, and can make a big difference for those who do not have a source of light to extend the day for schoolwork and other activities at home, or lighting the cart itself after dark. This is no small matter if you're familiar with traffic on Indian highways, especially at night.


In a place where it is easy to see only the magnitude of the problems, it is uplifting to see people using their PhDs to do things that deal with some of those problems in a practical way. The NIE-CREST offices and labs are powered with photovoltaics and a small wind turbine. Their extremely clever biogas system provides enough gas for their tea and hot water as well as four hours of stove time in the downstairs canteen, all with some self-pressurizing tanks behind the building that demonstrate directly ("here, come see") that the system is simple and there is no smell. On a lab table, carefully measured into graduated cylinders, is a concoction of elephant dung being used to optimize the production of biogas for cooking facilities at the Mysore Zoo—one of the many features of that institution that are extremely forward-thinking! Another CREST innovation is an experimental biodiesel plant is using non-edible tree nuts of various types to make diesel for Mysore city buses, as well as campus vehicles at NIE. CREST also makes and installs micro hydroelectric systems. We saw a range of hand water pumps, solar cookers and desalinization devices, as well as excellent rainwater collection and filtration systems, all using only what is readily available.


These are not just dreams or laboratory prototypes, but working systems that are demonstrated and utilized on-site. Seeing is believing, but seeing that the PhD scientist lives with these systems and builds them himself is also important. “Walking the Walk” is not just a statement of commitment to action rather than words, it is a way of showing that this way of doing things is also respectable and does not imply lowered status.


One of the most impressive devices at the CREST was a cook stove made of brick and concrete in a stair- step pattern of hot air flow that seals smoke in and allows cooking in different locations on the stove at different temperatures. About 10,000 have been installed in rural areas around India. They allow for more cooking with less firewood and, more importantly, protect the women who are cooking from intense smoke inhalation, while allowing them to cook using traditional types of utensils, thus ensuring a more positive and long-lasting transition.


We are living in Auroville, near Pondicherry. Auroville officially belongs to nobody in particular, but to humanity as a whole; this comes not only from the Auroville Charter in 1968, but also from the national Auroville Foundation Act passed in 1988. Auroville's purpose is the creation of a new kind of community dedicated to the realization of human unity. The underpinning philosophy, which stems from Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, contains within it a mandate for experimentation, and a commitment to the evolution of the human species into something unified in its diversity, moving beyond the limits of the existing societies to build a community for the future, based on scientific principles and “unending education,” as well as universally shared spiritual values. Auroville is divided into zones for international celebrations of unity in diversity, as well as cultural activities in the arts, community living, and industrial development in the spirit of karma yoga. It is comprised of many different "units,” many of which are commercial, and these need to find economically viable ways to not only survive, but to contribute to the community-building enterprise.


There are as many different Aurovilles as there are units--or, some would say, as there are Aurovilians! Among these units are several dedicated to renewable energy, recycling and sustainability, and electric transportation. At one time, Auroville had the largest photovoltaic power plant in India. Different units manufacture electric scooters, solar-electric lighting systems, solar thermal systems, and biogas systems. Others design and install solar energy systems. Power outages of 12 or more hours a day affect Auroville, since a majority of Auroville is tied to the Tamil Nadu grid. This problem has created a market in large diesel generators, but with the rising price of diesel, some units are finding that battery back-up systems can bridge the power gaps more cheaply than generators. The batteries are charged from the grid when the power is on, and used when the power is off. Less obvious is that the batteries and inverter needed to do this are also the major expense in building an off-grid photovoltaic system. Once installed, the extra expense of buying solar panels to charge the batteries is relatively small. When many of us think of solar electricity, we tend to think of the expense of the complete package, but here the infrastructure is already evolving (in keeping with Auroville founding principles) toward compatibility with solar as a marginal rather than major extra expense in many cases. By taking these small steps, we can cumulatively arrive at a transition to new energy systems.


Some Aurovilians powered their compounds with solar in the 1970s and 1980s and many are still doing so (along with many new solar energy installations), but some have stopped doing so. Why? Auroville offers a rare long-term perspective on renewable energy for a world mostly new to the idea. Auroville started in 1968 with deforested and eroded land, and paramount importance was placed on water/erosion management and on growing trees. Decades later, now that the trees have grown and shaded the solar photovoltaics, and overtaken the wind turbine towers, one must choose between trees and renewable energy systems! "Green" values of one kind can conflict with "green" values of another. The balance between energy and other needs is worth thinking about as we all contemplate changes in our energy cultures, increasingly necessary as the era of cheap fossil fuels comes to a close. This is the core of Sarah’s research on energy transitions in the face of climate change, exploring not only the experiments of Auroville, but the ways that these models might be expanded for use in surrounding villages, as ongoing work in Auroville, through the Auroville Village Action Network, and in Karnataka at NIE-CREST, has been demonstrating. By understanding that we are part of social-ecological systems that are constantly evolving, we can develop alternatives for powering our futures in more sustainable ways.


And where will those futures lead? NIE-CREST and Auroville provide examples of technology in use, or new ways to use existing technology, but what about technologies that are entirely new? At Pondicherry University (PU), the new Madanjeet School of Green Energy Technology engages in research to work toward fundamentally new technologies. PU is not new to renewable energy. PU claims to be India’s fastest-growing central university, and aside from research, PU is engaged in an impressive variety of “green-campus” initiatives. These include solar hot water for hostels, solar street lights, an electric bus circulating around campus, energy auditing, attention to gray-water management and rainwater harvesting, and planned construction of two biogas plants utilizing the campus’ roughly 2500 kg of daily food waste. With support from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy of the Government of India, PU is moving to develop the northern “Silver Jubilee” area of campus as a “solar campus.” These initiatives help serve not only to save money and to demonstrate commitment to sustainability, but also serve as teaching facilities and as says to model sustainable practices for the whole region.


In working with PhD students of Dr. R. Arun Prasath, we are exploring two great needs in the renewable and alternative energy world. One of these is the promise of using solar energy much like plants do to store energy as chemical fuel rather than as electrical power. If you can store energy in every molecule of a liquid fuel, you can store far more energy in a given volume than in a battery. To date, there is no commercially available device for direct solar fuel generation because, although efficient devices have been built in the laboratory, none last long enough to be useful without breaking down. We are trying to solve this problem with new light-absorbing materials.


Another key technology need is for much better chemical catalysts. Some materials can absorb light efficiently but cannot also catalyze the chemical reactions needed to make fuels. We are therefore exploring new catalytic materials, focusing on technology that can be scaled up to the global by using abundant earth materials to achieve catalytic success--things like carbon and iron and sulfur, rather than rare and costly platinum, indium, or gallium. There's a reason that the only truly global solar fuels technology—green plants--does not require these rare elements!


We all are familiar with the weight of need found in many sectors of India, but we also see the beginnings of both technological and social changes that come with moving toward what is now grouped under the umbrella term of "sustainability." If there is a way for India to stabilize population and gradually increase, by small steps, the prosperity of the poor, it will involve the great ideas we have seen here in south India. No doubt there are many more examples like these to be found across the country, and with more and more people coming to understand these new ways of organizing their energy lives, there is hope for a sustainable future.


As we finish writing this, we are sitting at an altitude of 1400 meters in a saddle along a ridge in a tiger reserve and wildlife sanctuary in south India. We have been fortunate to see a wide variety of wildlife in a short time. Achievement of a sustainable future for people here also means a sustainable future for these disappearing habitats. Such achievements will only happen by many many small steps, in the daily choices we all make. How much air conditioning do we really need? Can I use a bicycle some of the time? How much water do I really need today, and can I use a filter rather plastic bottles? The choice is ours—remembering always that not choosing is also a choice!