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The Pondicherry-based organisation combines a zeal to promote the popular use of renewable energy with business acumen and technical expertise

If there is a mantra for success in the business of renewable energy solutions, 'thinking big' is probably it. And the AuroRE (Auroville Renewable Energy) Trust has this angle covered. In less than a decade, AuroRE has succeeded in delivering affordable, reliable renewable energy products and services that directly benefit 80,000 Indians across 12 states. The not-for-profit organisation has also worked out innovative finance schemes with the goal that solar power become affordable to everyone -- from street hawkers in Chennai to farmers in Punjab.

India is blessed with abundant sunshine and wind, and though the government is implementing one of the world's largest programmes in renewable energy, this will hardly reduce the anticipated shortfalls generated under conventional energy sources. Budgetary allocations for the promotion of renewable energy are still too low (0.8% of total funds allocated to the energy sector in the Eighth Five-Year Plan from 1992 to 1997) compared to conventional energy sources that operate with huge government subsidies.

The realisation that the potentially huge market for renewable energy in India remained untapped due to lack of availability, affordability and reliability of renewables, and working to address this situation, has been the key to the trust's success.

AuroRE is situated in Auroville, in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, which has been committed to the concept of sustainable energy since it was set up in 1968. The township itself is a remarkable demonstration of the application of renewable energy technologies.

Residents of Auroville established the Centre for Scientific Research (CSR) on the premises in 1984. The CSR has pioneered various renewable energy technologies, including solar water pumping systems, home lighting kits, solar water heaters, PV powerplants, biogas plants, wind pumps and hybrid wind-solar systems. Having experimented with these technologies, the centre set up the AuroRE Trust to promote their commercial application in 1997.

" It's dynamics. We learn what works in Auroville, we take it out to other parts of India, where we learn new lessons which, in turn, help us improve what we are doing here," says Hemant Lamba, a manager at AuroRE. "There were times when I thought we'd bitten off more than we could chew. We had to install 219 pump sets in three months over a huge area -- from a border village in Punjab to a place in West Bengal, from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India to the northernmost village in Gujarat -- and we were beginning from scratch. We had no office up there, no technicians, no nothing!"

Since its creation, the trust has aimed to progressively introduce renewable energy technologies in India by interacting with product manufacturers, financial intermediaries, donor agencies and end-users. Its strategy to achieve this goal includes:

  • Developing into an Energy Service Provider (ESCO) to provide reliable energy supplies to rural and urban end-users. Facilitating the setting up of similar ESCOs throughout India.

  • Acting as a system integrator and installer, providing high-quality renewable energy systems to rural and urban populations in developing countries.

  • Providing innovative financial solutions to mitigate high-entry cost barriers for renewable technologies.

  • Operating as a maintenance and service company, providing proper and prompt maintenance service as well as advice to end-users.

AuroRE has succeeded where others have failed mainly because it has concentrated on identifying and tackling the obstacles to the widespread use of solar power. For example, it uses bulk purchasing power to obtain bulk discounts, and works with micro-credit institutions to draw up special finance deals.

Its approach has been to create 'solar entrepreneurs' -- seeding businesses which can become self-sustaining, whether it's hiring out solar lanterns to market traders (and so replacing polluting and expensive kerosene lamps) or supplying and installing solar water pump sets to small farms.

AuroRE's projects include installing 1,025 solar water pump sets to farmers in 11 Indian states, providing solar lanterns to street hawkers in Chennai and coordinating a rural electrification project in Ladakh using 8,700 solar home kits and 6,000 lanterns.

"No fumes, no startup problem, no trouble getting diesel, no night shift waiting for power from the grid. The solar pump has made our lives easier," says Punjab farmer Baljinder Singh, succinctly summing up the benefits of solar power.

The installation of solar pump sets has made small and medium-sized farming viable. Farmers no longer have to rely on the notoriously blackout-prone state grid, and are able to save the Rs 35,000 they spend on diesel annually. The pumps are easier to operate and require less maintenance.

AuroRE has also promoted the use of alternative lighting sources by providing solar lanterns to hawkers in Chennai. "We are saving five litres of kerosene every month after taking a solar lantern on rent," says Murugan, a hawker.

"Our dependency on private drinking water suppliers is gone. After installing a solar pump we have been freed from the bondage," says Saraben, woman sarpanch of a village where a solar pump has been installed.

"People have a community life in the evening, after the installation of solar lights. Women at home have a better environment and children can study for longer hours," says Dhariya, a coordinator with Sahjeevan, a local network partner of AuroRE.

AuroRE aims to set up a whole chain of 'local energy entrepreneurs' by effectively providing the managerial, technical and financial back-up for new small businesses supplying solar energy. Under the leadership of Lamba the AuroRE team has developed trained manpower to ensure the quality and maintenance of their products. And, for the continuing success of its work, AuroRE has developed a network of sustainable enterprises among economically deprived communities, including training at least 250 people in the installation and maintenance of solar photovoltaic systems.

In recognition of its success in popularising solar energy technology and its many uses, AuroRE, along with seven other developing country projects, has made it to the final shortlist of the Ashden Awards 2004, for sustainable energy initiatives, to be announced later this month.

Contact: AuroRE Trust
CSR office
Tamil Nadu 605101
Tel: +91 (0) 413 622168
Email:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(InfoChange News & Features, June 2004)