A wind farm at Myvadi near Udumalpet in Coimbatore district has a 350-kilowatt windmill established by the Odanthurai village panchayat. Odanthurai, a tiny village panchayat 40 km from here, has become a must-see spot for other panchayat leaders. In the past six months, 2,000 chairpersons of village panchayats visited it. The panchayat has utilised renewable energy sources, in an imaginative way, to reduce its dependence on the supply of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB).
Though the panchayat faces three hours of power disruption every day, it ensures that drinking water pumping operations and street lighting are not affected, as renewable energy is used for such needs. Streetlights burn in the two hamlets of Vinobhaji Nagar and Kalarpudur even when load shedding is in force, as they are run on solar energy. In a panchayat, power is used mainly for streetlights and to pump drinking water. Odanthurai, with a population of 6,500, needs 4.5 lakh units of power a year, and its annual power bill is nearly Rs. 12 lakh.
The panchayat has 65 solar streetlights in two hamlets. It has a nine-KW (kilo watt) biomass gasifier to pump drinking water and a 350-KW windmill. “Of the total income of the panchayat, 60 per cent goes to the TNEB. In an effort to reduce the power bill, we went in for various sources of renewable energy between 2002 and 2006,” says R. Shanmugam, who was panchayat president from 1996 to 2006. The windmill generates 7.5 lakh units annually. While the panchayat’s need is only 4.5 lakh units, the rest is sold to the TNEB. This gives the panchayat an annual income of Rs. 19 lakh. For establishing the windmill, the panchayat has taken a bank loan of Rs. 1.15 crore, which is to be repaid in seven years. Once the loan is repaid, the electricity bill will be nil, beams Mr. Shanmugam.
The success story of Odanthurai has inspired many panchayat leaders to plan projects aimed at harnessing renewable energy, he notes. Non-conventional energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass help to bring down the power bill for the panchayats and provide energy to meet the local body’s needs. This, in turn, eases pressure on the TNEB to some extent, says a former official of the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA).
However, there are issues that the panchayats need to resolve before utilising renewable energy optimally. The cost of each solar streetlamp is Rs. 22,000. Only with greater government support, the panchayats can install more such lights, Mr. Shanmugam says. Likewise the biomass gasifier is used only when needed. With higher prices for firewood, the cost of generation went up from Rs. 1.75 a unit in 2003 to Rs. 2.50 now. Agreeing that the total energy needs of panchayats can be met through high-capacity biomass gasifier units, he points out that for progress , the cost issue has to be settled in favour of the village panchayats.
Observing that the price fluctuation of raw materials is unavoidable, K. Muthuchelian, Head, Department of Bio-energy and School of Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, Madurai Kamaraj University, says panchayats, before executing biomass power projects, should undertake a thorough study of assessment of the raw materials. Invariably, panchayats have fallowland that can be used for energy plantation. Big farmers in the areas can be encouraged to raise fast-growing tree species. In the short run, the local bodies need to keep a buffer stock, which can meet their requirements at least for three months.
Notwithstanding the issues, G. Palanithurai, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Development Administration, Gandhigram University, refers to the Odanthurai example and says: “We need more such models. For instance, energy can be generated from waste. Small gasifiers can be used for pumping water. They enable the panchayats to become self-sufficient.” Though solar energy is a perennial source, many panchayats do not go in for it owing to the cost factor. Scalability will bring down the cost.
Pointing out that the State government has cleared the electricity and water arrears of the panchayats, Prof. Palanithurai says the funds allotted for these purposes cannot be diverted for others, and the electricity charges have been brought down for the panchayats. With these moves, every panchayat knows how much power it consumes. Some vigilant ones have reduced wastage by switching off the streetlights when not needed. Energy saving needs to be done at the village level, and there is enormous scope for panchayats to go in for alternative forms of energy.