From desert to sea, ABB helps remote villages get ‘Access to Electricity’

2015-03-11 - As Solar Impulse’s round-the-world flight demonstrates renewables’ promise from the air, ABB working to do the same thing, not just with commercial projects but also through it's support of rural electrification in India

A tailor in one of the communities near Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where solar power via ABB's Access to Electricity program has helped to increase productivity of local crafts people, strengthen education and boost health care.
Tigers prowl the mangroves of eastern India’s marshy Sundarbans delta on the Bay of Bengal. Two-thousand miles westward, Rajasthan’s desert offers a stark geographic contrast, where camels cross endless sands beneath ancient hilltop fortresses.

The regions not only highlight India’s magical variety, they underscore a common challenge: How to safely and sustainably provide power to off-the-grid villages so remote they’re reachable only by rough, dusty track or an hours-long river trip.

ABB has partnered with groups in India as part of its “Access to Electricity” program to help address this, starting with a project to provide solar power for remote communities in Rajasthan. In 2013, efforts were expanded to a village just across a river from Sundarbans National Parks, a United Nations’ World Heritage-designated tiger reserve.

Just as Solar Impulse visits to Ahmedabad and Varanasi demonstrates renewable energy’s potential, ABB, the round-the-world mission’s innovation and technical partner, is doing the same on the ground: Showing how solar electricity lights people’s lives, powers their businesses and trims environmental impact.

“Due to the solar powered lights in my home I have been able to increase my working time by four to five hours in a day, leading to an increase in my income by about 50 percent,” said Hanuman Ram, a weaver from Balau, a village in Rajasthan.

ABB responded to a UN initiative

Solar Impulse and ABB have forged an innovation and technology alliance, to advance the idea that together, we can run the world without consuming the earth. Copyright:Jean Revillard/
ABB initiated its “Access to Electricity” program in 2000, after the United Nations urged companies and organizations to assist developing countries. Nearly a fifth of the world’s population, 1.6 billion people, are without access to electricity, a high barrier to fighting poverty.

In 2005, ABB joined forces with the state government in Rajasthan and a non-governmental organization to deliver electricity via individual home solar systems in desert communities about four hours by jeep from Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second-largest city. What started in a single hamlet has now grown to encompass 1,100 households and 7,000 people.

Artisan tailors can work by fluorescent light in the cool of early morning and night, avoiding searing 50-degree daytime temperatures. For many like Hanuman Ram in Balau, incomes and productivity have risen significantly.

And with education and healthcare pillars of prosperity, teachers can offer classes after dark, doubling student numbers, while nurses can extend hours for services.

“While grid electricity has reached a few of the households in some of these villages, people are completely committed to these solar powered domestic systems as grid electricity comes only few hours a day - with no fixed time table and that, too, not every day,” said Kan Singh, who heads the organization working with ABB.

Solar power reduces deforestation, boosts safety

In the Sundarbans, near India’s border with Bangladesh, many villages face the same quandary: They’re so remote a connection to the grid is neither technically nor economically feasible. Consequently, millions must gather fuel wood, contributing to deforestation, and use dangerous, unhealthy and expensive kerosene for lamps.

Partnering with the WWF India, ABB has erected a solar-powered multi-purpose battery charging station on the island of Satjelia now providing electricity for a tribal community. Villagers pay a small sum to exchange empty batteries with charged units, taking them home to power lights and other small appliances including phones and radios.

A solar-powered multi-purpose charging station in India's Sundarbans helps reinforce the role of clean, renewable energy in helping people - and protecting wildlife
So far, 50 households and 13 stores are benefiting from the program, which not only reduces emissions but reinforces the value of sustainable technology among villagers whose livelihoods depend on harmony with their environment.

Safer for tigers, more study time – and music

Having lights at night discourages Royal Bengal tigers from leaving the mangroves and entering the village, while leaving youngsters with more time to study without inhaling kerosene fumes. Cell phones can be charged, fans run; some villagers have installed music systems.

“The ABB-supported and community-managed solar power project in Sundarbans is helping access modern energy at an affordable price,” said Anurag Danda, of WWF India. “This project has facilitated the community to be engaged more on village-based activities rather than venturing in the Tiger Reserve and hence reducing the chances of human-wildlife conflict.”

With Access to Electricity now in its 15th year, ABB’s ambition remains not merely to help poor, vulnerable communities but also intensify its long-term business engagement in developing countries, laying the groundwork for more sustainable growth that will touch the lives of more people.

“The cornerstone of this program is promoting economic development, social progress and environmental stewardship,” said Ron Popper, ABB’s head of Corporate Responsibility. “These projects are feasible and successful. The next step is expansion to bigger-scale projects.”

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