IIT Madras lights up the hottest place in India using green technology

The technology could be the key driver for PM Modi's promise of providing electricity to every household by 2022
IIT Madras lights up the hottest place in India using green technology
IIT Madras lights up the hottest place in India using green technology
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By Pallava Bagla for PTI

Shaitanram, a farmer from Likhmasar village on the edge of the Thar Desert has for the first time this year tasted the benefits of having electricity in his home and says "his five member household has literally seen a new dawn".

He is one of the early beneficiaries of a new disruptive technology being spearheaded by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras which promises to brighten the lives of the 300 million Indians who have no access to assured electric supply even today.

Shaitanram's 58 household hamlet is part of larger Phalodi, a small town in Rajasthan that recently hit headlines as it sizzled at 51 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature ever recorded in India.

In the heat and dust unknown to many, a quiet revolution in electrification has also been unfolding at Phalodi. A bunch of energetic engineers from IIT, Madras has been lighting up homes there using DC or Direct Current. The omnipresent electrification standard in India is by using AC or Alternating Current. A revolutionary new approach to supply electricity is being perfected amid the sand dunes of Jodhpur district.

Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director of IIT, Madras calls it potentially a game changer technology.

"It is not a new invention but the world had abandoned using DC power to electrify homes," he says. Today in India, the out-of-the box thinkers from IIT Madras are reviving DC power as a potential solution to India's electricity woes.

A disruptive solution that holds a lot of promise and could be the key driver for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise of providing electricity to every household by 2022.

Especially as a solution for isolated hard to reach hamlets.

The novel Indian technology also helps cut down greenhouse emissions and is very environment friendly and hence under Energy Minister Piyush Goyal's leadership the Ministry of Power is pushing hard to field test the technological fix being offered by IIT, Madras.

There are many hamlets in Phalodi that are still not connected to the grid and for whom light after sun down still means a smoky kerosene lamp. This is the setting where IIT Madras has intervened with what they call an "inverter-less power supply". 

The system is fairly straight forward but with key twist in the tail. Houses that have no electric supply are provided with a simple one square meter solar panel. The electricity generated by the panel is stored in four regular lead acid batteries and the electrical appliances instead of running on AC power run on DC power.

In most solar power solutions or in battery backed up systems 'inverters' have to be deployed that convert DC power to AC power so that regular electrical appliances can be run.

In Phalodi, this off grid power solution is totally run on DC power. This makes the whole system between 25-30 per cent more efficient and brings down power consumption by almost 50 per cent.

It costs about Rs 25,000 to install the entire 'inverter- less system', says an ex-IIT Madras engineer and project manager for the Phalodi project Surbhi Maheshwari who asserts that 'even during the peak of the heat wave' the IIT Madras system did not break down and helped the locals get much needed relief.

Each beneficiary house in Phalodi gets one ceiling fan, one LED tube light an LED bulb and cell phone charging point all run on DC power.

Maheshwari says as of now 1800 homes have been successfully connected and another 2200 will be done in the next few months. In comparison if each home were to be connected with grid electricity it would have cost upwards of Rs one lakh per home, Maheshwari says.

IIT Madras has mastered this technology in the last few years but the real proof that it works came home during the devastating floods that hit Chennai in 2015.

Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala from the Electrical Engineering Department had installed a small 125 watt solar system at his home. He recalls that for almost 3 days the entire campus of IIT in Chennai went without electricity in the aftermath of the heavy rains, the only home that had uninterrupted power was his own where he had installed the 'decentralised DC solar system'.

He says "this breakthrough technology developed by IIT Madras is an extremely efficient way to use electricity."

Jhunjhunwala, who has ancestral roots in Rajasthan, says the Phalodi project is "very satisfying as it gave a great support to the local people even during the peak of the heat wave".

He feels if the IIT Madras experiment works it could be the model for providing reliable electricity to isolated homes that are hard to connect to the grid. Even apartments in urban settings can use this 'inverter less' solution to get assured supply during long outages and disaster situations.

"A change in mindset is required to start thinking DC once again," asserts Jhunjhunwala.

It was really a 19th century battle between two great American inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison that resulted in the world adopting the Alternating Current route.

Tesla was pushing for AC electric supply and finally with support from George Westinghouse he ensured that it became the gold standard.

Ramamurthi says today a major re-think is required since most of the modern electrical appliances like laptops, new TV's, mobile phones all get charged using DC power. 

The ubiquitous adaptors all convert AC power to DC power and then charge the battery.

"Huge wastage of energy takes place in all this conversion and re-conversion," explains Ramamurthi.

Some 50 million homes are still bereft of electricity and another 100 million homes in India face repeated power cuts.

Jhunjhunwala says if only decentralized solar DC power can be incentivised for its wider adoption it could offer a long- term sustainable climate-friendly solution to electricity black outs.

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