Everyone in Bihar knows the electricity problems of the state.  It’s got a massive, yawning deficit, but not the coal reserves to plug it. 

Yet, somehow, the issue of energy is often overlooked in the shadows of other developmental needs here.  It’s nonsensical, because as urgent as health, education, law and order and others are, you’ll find that many of these are connected to a reliable energy supply.  Energy isn’t just about lighting – though that’s important enough – but also refrigerating medicines, starting businesses, irrigating crops.  It is intricately connected to progress, and Bihar cannot be expected to develop without it.

On the 22nd October we brought journalists from Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Bihar to the Urja Kranti Kendra to describe and demonstrate how Bihar can chart provide regular and reliable energy services for its population. We believe that the state can chart an alternate development pathway by investing in decentralised renewable energy, and we’ve installed the Kendra to showcase it. The Kendra is hollow globe, four storeys high and powered by solar photovoltaic panels that sit next to it in the Bihar sunshine. 

Let’s be clear: Bihar is not without energy services.  People know how important energy is, and are not about to do without it just because the government is unable to provide it to them through the centralised electricity grid. Instead, the state is filled with small scale energy: enterprising individuals who create electricity by burning diesel in generators. In rural areas, these diesel merchants build micro distribution grids and people pay for electricity to be delivered to their homes and businesses.  It’s a decentralised system of a sort, but one that relies on an expensive and polluting fuel. There’s also no regulation on pricing. The result is that the rural poor, faced with no other choice for electricity supply, often end up paying more for basic power than the better-off occupants of the cities. 

We talked the journalists through our vision of decentralised renewable energy, explaining how this energy picture could look in Bihar, and other states.  The small scale distribution pattern can stay, as when you generate energy far from the place it’s needed you have to transport it long distances through electrical cables.  In India, up to 25% of the electricity we create can be lost before it gets to an end user, because it has to be transmitted and distributed through such long distances.  It’s mad if you think about it – especially when we’ve got an energy deficit. 

What would be different in the energy picture we envisage is the source of the energy.  Bihar may not have coal reserves, but it’s got plenty of strong, clear sunlight, fertile alluvial plains and a lot of moving water.  If Bihar were to begin to tap into these energy resources – which are abundant, cheap or free, and constantly renewing themselves – it could easily plug its energy deficit and start moving faster on the path to development.

The great thing is, decentralised renewable energy projects already exist in Bihar. In July this year I travelled to document two of them, and their stories are now released in a report, together with some fantastic images by photojournalist Harikrishna Katragadda. 

‘Empowering Bihar’ tells the tale of Husk Power Systems (HPS), a company that generates electricity from waste rice husk.  They provide power to over one lakh people in Bihar in more than 125 villages, for a much cheaper price than people would otherwise pay for diesel or kerosene.  The second story is of Tripolia Hospital, Patna, a charitable enterprise that uses concentrating solar power to create steam, with which it sterilises all its operating instruments, medical dressings and laundry.  They also have solar hot water heaters for preparing medicines and baths for patients, some solar lights, and a solar-powered building.  You can download the report here

We also told the journalists about a micro-hydro project in the Western Ghats in Kerala, a system designed, installed and paid for by a village community who had no grid electricity connection, and wanted to fight the impostition of a proposed nuclear power plant in the state.  With its many rivers, Bihar also has a high potential for micro-hydro power, we explained.

On the second day of the media workshop, the journalists were taken to Lakhisarai district headquarters to visit a HPS power plant.  As in all of HPS’s almost 60 plants,  rice husk is loaded into a machine called a biomass gasifier, which heats the agri-waste to high temperatures in very little oxygen.  This causes it not to burn, but to turn into a gas, which is then fed into an internal combustion engine and used to drive a turbine.  Electricity is created, and distributed for domestic, industrial and agricultural use through a purpose-built micro grid belonging to the company.  Such a groundbreaking venture as the HPS model comes across many hurdles as it develops – the social ones not least.  The journalists were able to see a little of this, and also witness the plant delivering electricity to homes for four hours every evening. 

The Urja Kranti Yatra played host to the media on the 21st of October too, when to coincide with the first phase of polling in the state Assembly elections in Bihar, the news channel Sahara Samay used it as a site for a televised public debate on energy issues.  ‘Bijili se pareshan janta’ (which loosely translates as ‘People unhappy with the power situation’) was aired as an episode of election discussion programme ‘Muhim’ on the 22nd of October, at 5pm and 11.30pm.