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Ladakh, India

Dsering Tsetan’s eyes squint as the dust begins to rise. Soon he can’t see across the road to his village.

He waits patiently with his donkey, counting them as they pass: 31… 32,

belching black smoke… 33 is the last. He checks both directions and crosses the road, clucking to his donkey as silence slowly descends around them. These fuel convoys used to be a daily occurrence, but they’re not so frequent now, not since the arrival of ‘Ecology’.

Ladakh, literally the Land of High Passes, is a high-altitude, cold, desert region of India’s Jammu & Kashmir state, neighbouring China to the east and Pakistan to the north. The harshness of its environment is exacerbated by the closure of roads through the rugged Ladakh Himalaya during the long, cold winters. Apart from the towns of Leh and Kargil, the population is widely scattered.

Development in the region has been largely overlooked, but now it’s bene iting from the world’s largest off-grid renewable-energy project. The Indian Ministry for New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is spending the equivalent of US$88.8million on decentralised solar and hydro technologies to bring energy security to this remote mountain region. The three-and-a-half-year Ladakh Renewable Energy Initiative (LREI) is an energy revolution, now in its inal year. But why Ladakh?

‘Because we are closer to God!’ says a smiling Jigmet Takpa, project director of the Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency (LREDA) in Leh. ‘Our sunshine is high quality. We have an average of 320 sunny days every year and the mountain air is thin and cold, ideal for the operation of photovoltaic systems. Ladakh is a solar paradise.’

EFFECTING CHANGE Banner clouds trail from a curtain of dun-coloured, snow-capped peaks. Behind a large bank of sunblasted solar panels, LREDA’s o ices are buzzing. Takpa consults with his senior engineer, Reuben Gergan, 29, a Cornell University-educated Ladakhi, and former NASA researcher. The dynamic team has strong links with India’s main tech-providers, and carries out international scienti ic exchanges.

Takpa, 49, a native of Leh, has a background in engineering and conservation. He joined LREDA in 2001 to oversee a project to supply basic solar lighting to 200 unelectri ied villages, a success that became a national scheme. He’s responsible for highlighting the enormous untapped solar, hydro, geothermal and wind energy potential of the region. ‘Ladakhis traditionally lived sustainably, but tourism and a cash economy have put immense pressure on the ecosystem,’ he says. ‘We now focus on ecosystem management, encouraging rural livelihoods through ecotourism and trekker homestays. The LREI complements these needs through renewable energy and conservation techniques for housing and agriculture.’

Before the initiative began, he explains, energy vulnerability and deprivation affected the entire region. ‘The remoter villages suffered a shortage of fuel for cooking and heating,’ he says. ‘Three quarters of the existing electricity was diesel-generated, with much kerosene used for space heating. Geography dictated the extremely costly import of these fuels from outside the region, and supply is at the mercy of winter roads. But this great expense has made renewable energy more competitive.

‘Connection to a regional grid system isn’t a realistic option with our geography and scattered population,’ he continues. ‘Off-grid renewables are the cost-effective solution.’ The region’s Special Area status (strategic, remote, underdeveloped) enabled the hydro and solar hardware to be 100 per cent government-funded, with electricity tariffs helping to pay for village technicians and upkeep.

Rough terrain, altitudes of more than 5,500 metres, and winds of up to 90km/h made the installation process challenging. Winter temperatures of –35°C delayed construction but also enabled beasts of burden to transport photovoltaic systems on the surface of frozen rivers, shortening the routes to several remote mountain villages.

REGIONAL SUPPLY In Takpa’s o ice, he reveals, through maps and tables, the LREI’s impressive scope. Half of the budget is for nearly 24 megawatts (MW) of small hydro power, the most economic off-grid solution. Despite the arid climate, village streams provide hydro generation for eight to ten months a year. In deep winter, the streams freeze, so diesel generation becomes necessary. By the time construction is completed later this year, 30 locations will have been provided with capacities of 150 3,000 kilowatts (kW) at a cost of almost US$50million. An estimated 20 million litres of diesel, worth more than US$17million will be saved annually.

Most of the 125 solar photovoltaic power plants – whose total capacity is 4.6MW – are already installed. First priority went to 70 remote villages, which received plants producing between ive and 100kW. Lukung, for example, now boasts a 12.5kW plant that serves 15 households. The US$74,000 installation includes a battery-bank room, security fencing and local distribution.

On LREDA’s roof terrace, demonstrations of solar thermal technology gleam in the sunshine. Slick banks of solar water heaters are popular with houses and hotels. LREDA estimates that their current usage, already heating more than half a million litres per day, has replaced electric and oil-based boilers to save the region 500,000 litres of diesel and kerosene a year.

Takpa points over a low ridge in the direction of the JNV school, where the parabolic re lectors of a concentrated solar power steam-cooking system track the sun, feeding 600 people daily without the need for butane. Installation of a further 24 similar plants has been proposed.

These cookers underline the diverse nature of

September 2013 | 25

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