Araria, a bustling rural district in India’s eastern state of Bihar, is accustomed to flooding. Every year, rainfall from neighboring Nepal flows into the region and wreaks havoc.
But this monsoon season has been unlike any other. In August, exceptionally heavy rain caused the region to fill up like a bathtub within two hours. “My whole village had nearly five feet of water,” said Gopal Prasad Biswas, a 39-year-old father from Araria.
The flash flood swept away houses, collapsed bridges, swamped farmland and killed at least 57 people. It also uprooted electric poles and drowned a local transformer, cutting off power to parts of Araria for days or weeks.
Yet, amid the chaos, some villagers managed to keep their lights on thanks to the power of the sun.
DESI Power is a regional power provider that has set up solar installations across Araria. Loosely translated, desi means ‘local’ or ‘Indian’ in Hindi. The name is apt given that DESI Power produces electricity not from imported coal or gas, but from locally generated solar power. Even after last month’s floods caused widespread blackouts, those with access to solar power and batteries still had basic lighting, even after the sun went down.
“Despite the heavy flooding, we were pleasantly surprised to find that nearly 75 percent of our power systems remained functional,” said Kunal Amitabh, DESI’s chief operating officer.
In developing countries like India, distributed solar can help obviate the need for expensive power infrastructure. Just five years ago, large parts of Araria didn’t have paved roads or electricity. Now, even as power lines crawl across the landscape, many areas routinely endure power outages lasting up to 10 hours — often during the evenings, when power is most needed. And so power firms like DESI Power are setting up small solar systems that allow residents to light their homes and run water pumps on farms.
“More than half a million people in Bihar who previously had no access to electricity are now using off-grid solar products in the state,” said Sandeep Pai, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, who studies distributed solar in Bihar. “Solar power has changed people’s lives, improved their health and enhanced their livelihood opportunities while benefitting the environment.”
Solar power has allowed people in rural South Asia and Africa to move away from dangerous and polluting kerosene stoves while spurring economic growth. It has helped small-business owners work longer hours, for example. And it has proved resilient in the face of extreme weather.
DESI engineers mounted solar panels a few feet off the ground so they could survive flooding. The battery box for a typical residential solar power system is portable, so it can be easily removed in case of fire or flood.
“After seeing the water rise, we quickly secured our system to a greater height, as per DESI’s engineer’s instruction, and managed to keep the system running smoothly,” said Biswas, who pays the equivalent of $2 per month to get 4 to 5 hours of light daily.
The solar systems didn’t run at full capacity during the flood, but they generated enough electricty to help villagers power an LED bulb or two and a mobile charging point. That may not sound like much, but for flood victims stuck waiting weeks for government aid, this was a huge relief. The village of Aamgachi, where Biswas lives, ran its small solar array for three days after the flood, charging mobile phones for residents of other villages for free.
In the days after the flood, DESI employees visited villages to check for damage to the solar systems. As they surveyed the scene, they realized solar power could serve another important function. “There is a huge need for safe drinking water here and we thought, why not install water treatment machines at our sites that are still working?” said Amitabh. Now, as part of their flood protection work, DESI Power is looking to install small, solar-powered water treatment plants at villages around Araria. Their first installment will serve around 200 households.
While some energy companies have suggested that fossil fuels are needed to provide cheap power to developing countries, the reality is more complicated. India, for example, boasts a wealth of coal power but lacks the power lines needed to send that electricity to rural areas. Solar allows villagers to generate their own power without relying on the grid.
Just as cell phones obviated the need for costly phone lines, solar promises to obviate the need for expensive transmission lines — all while helping people keep the lights on through floods. As the planet warms, India will face more frequent and intense rainfall. Solar can help the country weather the storm.
“Some people used to call solar ‘fake electricity’ and thought of it as a gimmick for us to earn money,” says Amitabh. “But after seeing how it benefited their neighbors, they understand. People are lining up for the electricity that saved their neighbors. They want it too.”