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There are no loud complaints against high fuel prices. Everyone gets used to misery in small daily doses, and so the average citizen remains mobile on his two-wheeler or car, as fuel prices soar: the petrol price tops Rs 110 a litre, diesel Rs100 in Chennai (more in some other States). LPG for the kitchen costs more and more (Rs.1,001 now).

India leads the International Solar Alliance (ISA), promoted with fanfare by the BJP-led government. For all the hoopla, it should have distributed nicely engineered solar cookers in ration shops free. But today, a good, usable and affordable one is hard to find even on Amazon or Flipkart. There’s more spark in the biogas story, where biomethane is produced out of organic waste. The Union government keeps drumming up its national programme for family-size biogas plants.

Yet, what rules is the thousand-rupee LPG delivered at the doorstep, the electricity that flows from the grid, water in municipal pipelines, and of course, costly petrol at the pump. All this keeps people firmly hooked to the system of fuel prices. The search for alternatives is too cumbersome for harried city-dwellers.

So what are the possibilities for autonomy, if any?

Sun-cooked savings: For those who get a lot of sun, and have a suitable terraced house or open access, a solar cooker is a low-tech energy saver. The most basic cooker to bake vegetables or bread is just a box that looks like a large briefcase, with a reflecting mirror, insulation and black vessels that absorb the sun’s heat. It is slow cooking. But don’t count on the government making it easy to acquire one.

Produced at mass scale, it should cost no more than a pressure cooker – about Rs.1,000. But look for one and it is hard to find. On Amazon, there are two, retailing at present for Rs.7,295 and Rs.7,500, one of them with four stars and 42 ratings, the other none. According to Solar Cookers International, which tells the story of an NGO in Madhya Pradesh helping communities own cookers, there are 4 million solar cookers around the world. Yet, they remain hard to find in India while LPG stoves can be had off-the-shelf.

Consider that 1.2 million children have reportedly been trained to fabricate their own solar cookers by IIT alumnus Vivek Kabra at pre-COVID workshops. But these gadgets are not mainstream. Another anecdotal report says a couple in Bengaluru stretch their gas cylinder by 25-30 days thanks to a 7,000-rupee parabolic cooker that they use almost everyday on their terrace. These outliers show the potential, but governments are not in a hurry to mass produce cookers.

(Photo Credit: Get Rooftop Solar for Home and Business by Emma Ava- Flickr)

Parabolic cookers, which are more sophisticated as they focus the sun’s energy at a defined spot and speed up the cooking, are more expensive. One other concentrator cooker model advertised in India, called Sunwings. It looks a lot like the Go Sun cookers used by hikers and campers in the US, and is more portable, but the website of the firm currently returns a 404 error for the purchase page.

Meanwhile, the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has a stated commitment to achieve an energy transition, for which it has “facilitative policies and programmes” and a “solar cookers programme”.

We need solar cookers for all, high or low fuel prices.

Energy freedom: Putting solar panels on vacant roofs
This is a much-discussed part of the energy transition, under which the average citizen would find it rewarding to put up a few solar photovoltaic panels on her roof, generating power on sunny days and the surplus flowing to the grid. There are examples of people in Chennai – again, outliers – who have invested in powerful rooftop systems that run even air-conditioners, washing machines and other power-intensive gadgets using solar-generated, battery-stored power.

The average middle class Indian is not big on rooftop solar power, and neither is the small industrialist. High cost and a hostile regulatory environment are responsible. The industry tracker Bridge to India report quoted by PV magazine says off-grid rooftop solar capacity addition in India during 2021’s last quarter, when pandemic-hit demand was reviving, was 120 MW. This is 4% of the total rooftop addition (the rest of the capacity added is of connected type). More broadly, the national total for standalone off-grid rooftop solar – the kind that residential buildings usually put up – is 1.47 gigawatts (GW), and grid-connected rooftop solar is 8.57 GW, out of a national solar tally of 50.5 GW (which many find impressive, but India wants to add 500 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030). Australia is a leader in the rooftop area and worthy of study.

Poor rooftop growth arises from utilities like Tangedco dragging their feet when it comes to helping consumers put up panels and hook them up to the grid. That is because they must reform their tariff for the power channelled by the householder. No one likes energy independence for the average citizen.

It becomes doubly difficult during peak summer demand, when the sun is blazing and air-conditioners humming, but power utilities like Tangedco baulk at encouraging private power contribution through rooftops. But the message is clear: a solar system on an empty roof is worth exploring even without a grid link.

Poor rooftop growth arises from utilities like Tangedco dragging their feet when it comes to helping consumers put up panels and hook them up to the grid. That is because they must reform their tariff for the power channelled by the householder. No one likes energy independence for the average citizen.

An idea about the costs involved in going solar is available from a recent price decision in Punjab, where the State Power Corporation put the rate for a 1 kWh system at Rs.37,000 (or Rs.37/watt), and with additional subsidy for residential rooftop systems, at Rs.22,000/kWh. Energy freedom looks tantalising at that rate. Tamil Nadu should explore how to grow rooftop sun farming.

Low on biogas
Anaerobic bacteria and decomposing organic matter in the backyard produce biomethane, at varying levels of efficiency based on what materials go into the biogas digester, but this should be a winner.

The current advertised price for a small biogas unit (upto 100 kg of waste capacity) from a prominent producer of fibre-reinforced plastic goods is about Rs.25,000. These plants sit quietly in the yard and produce methane, but be aware that the gas is not under pressure like LPG and therefore has to be at the same level as the user.

The MNRE has separate schemes for large-sized and small biogas plants, such as the New National Biogas and Organic Manure Programme (NNBOMP) with subsidies for some categories, including those linked to sanitary toilets in rural and semi-urban areas. Even without such funding help, it is attractive to put up one, since it just relies on vegetable waste and bacteria to do the job.

It should also be a ready solution for many hotels and restaurants where the location allows such a unit to be put up, and food waste can go into producing biomethane.

What about petrol and diesel?
Consider the traditional bicycle (the Dutch variety, easy to maintain) as a means to get around. It was never more attractive. Then, there are battery-assisted bikes for those with about Rs.30,000 to spare.

Of course, everyone should be pressing for more buses and trains and lower fares, and public transport services to all areas (hopefully with no more difficult virus variants). And in Chennai, people are desperate for spaces to walk along busy roads, since pavements are mostly absent. Walking is the ultimate assertion of independence from fuel prices.

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