Solar solutions give new hope

Govt's new experiment in schools

Solar solutions give new hope

In this project, four IITs have pooled in their innovations to try out in a rural school.

When the 19th century British inventor Michael Faraday discovered the basic principles of electricity, the story goes that the ruling elite asked him, “what use has it?” “One day you will tax it,” was the instant reply by Faraday, a London bookbinder-turned scientist.

“And Faraday’s prophecy was so telling,” excla­imed Department of Science and Technology (DST)’s Secretary Dr T S Ramaswami, quoting this anecdote. He was launching a bold and new research initiative to generate power from solar energy in a rural school in Kancheepuram district recently, as nations are on a roller-coaster ride to command the heights of energy self-sufficiency.

It is part of a wider Central Government progr­amme taken up as a “new experiment in schools” for the first time, which will put together a solar  energy system to generate and manage local requi­rements of electricity in villages without depending on the state power grid.

Ramaswami explained all this patiently to a keen gen-next group, as he opened an exciting learning window to students of Pathashaala, a residential school of the Krishnamurthy Foundation at Vallipuram, 10 km from Thirukalukundram near the Palar river bed. This project will not use the by now familiar solar photovoltaic cells to convert the sun’s abundant heat energy – Vallipuram is a flat, almost desert-like forlorn piece of land with plenty of sunshine which is one reason why this school was chosen for this Rs 15-crore project-- into electricity and store it in batteries.

Rather, its uniqueness lay in establishing a solar thermal project with a network of IITs-- IIT-Madras, IIT-Guwahati, IIT-Roorkee and IIT-Bombay-- pooling in their technical innovations and inputs, in what is termed a “DST-Pan-IIT Project” in a rural school setting. It is also aimed at sensitising the youth that in the 21st century solar energy will play a very big role in overall energy mix.

“This will be a solar thermal station that will come up in the next 18 months; they will collect solar  energy, use it to heat up water to high temperatures and use that steam to run a turbine to generate electricity,” Ramaswamy told the young ones, glued
expectantly to his face in the hot sun, in simple terms. The IIT-Madras will play the lead role in setting up this plant to produce 100 Kilowatt hours (kWh) in the first phase and 500 kWh in second phase.

“We will put up a series of flat mirrors (to collect and reflect the solar energy) and concentrate that on a water-carrying tube to produce high-temperature steam up to 400 degrees C at high pressure,” said Prof T Sunderarajan, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT-Madras.

In a steam-separator-cum-storage device, the saturated steam will be separated and sent for super-heating. While the electricity thus generated should meet the residential school’s needs and a few hamlets around it, the steam got in the first phase could also be used for purposes like cooking food in the school kitchen and heating up water in the students’ hostel,  elaborated Sunderarajan.

Two other components with the help of IIT-Bombay and IIT- Guwahati will be integrated into the main project that involves storing and using solar energy for  air-conditioning/refrigeration purposes also. For the DST, it is not just an off-grid solution for decentralised power generation. “It is also a techno-social experiment we want to engage with the next generation of India,” said Ramaswamy. Pathashaala has been the first school to get such a project, thanks to the school “imbibed with deep environmental values,” chips in G Gautama, Director of the School.

Gautama’s words are no rhetoric. As one ambles across the about 100-acre campus that now houses this specially designed school for imparting a holistic psycho-physical development of children in a 21st century setting, inspired by the vision of the late philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy, one notices, first and foremost, teachers are simply “off the pedestal”, sharp, yet self-effacing and child-friendly.

“Uniquely, we have designed this school to run solely on solar energy; despite the cyclonic storm last year, in the last three years (since it was started) we haven’t had a night without light,” says Gautama with a quiet sense of pride. A lot of research went into it and thanks to the ingenuity of the Bangalore-based social entrepreneur, Dr H Harish Hande, who heads SELCO- India, a full-fledged solar lighting
solution is already in place in this village campus.
“We said (to the school) we will design as per your need,” Dr Hande told Deccan Herald. All the dormitories, the pathways in the campus and other utility buildings are each equipped with individual solar-powered panels and designed to energise lights for six to 12 hours at night, said Dr Hande. “The solar lights will automatically switch on at sundown and they actually work,” he said, adding children in the campus could happily rely on them.

Another green aspect of this school that caught the DST and IIT’s fancy is that it is a “zero black water campus”. Pathashaala’ in a bold Gandhian-like foray, has gone in for “dry compost toilets”. The students and staff use saw-dust to cover the fecal matter in the two commodes set up there, each alternately used for six months in a year. The dry toilets are accordingly opened twice a year--one on Gandhi Jayanthi day and another on April 2 each year-- the compost matter, which is like “fresh soil”, is removed and used as plant manure. Thus toilets use very little water, in turn ensuring ground water is not polluted.

Even the buildings and domes atop them in the campus have used eco-friendly techniques and mater­ials. For instance, the inward side of the domes are packed with “Wardha-tumblers” made of clay. They are natural insulators and keep the school buildings cool. In this, Pathashaala picked up cue from the “Centre of Science For Villages” in Wardha in Maharashtra. These, with other facilities like a science park, are all set to make Pathashaala a helio­centric campus.
M R Venkatesh in Vallipuram

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