When one of the fiercest cyclones ever produced in decades, Amphan ripped through West Bengal and Bangladesh, it left a trail of massive destruction behind. Amphan’s major impact was witnessed in the eco-fragile area of the Indian Sundarbans delta, which is home to one of the largest mangrove forests in the world with a population of over 4.5 million people.
The cyclone rocked the coastal area — breaching embankments, uprooting trees, and decimating homes, forcing people to take refuge in disaster relief shelters despite the fear of COVID-19.
With hundreds of electric poles uprooted and wires snapped at several locations, a major part of Sundarbans plunged in darkness even after two weeks of the disaster.
The Satjelia Island in the Sundarbans stood out as an exception where the community solar microgrids set up by WWF India held the fort and continued to serve communities in an important life-supporting way.
A community solar microgrid is a small energy system planned, designed and installed to provide reliable and clean energy for vital community facilities and assets within a defined area.
Being a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Sundarbans is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. Such weather incidents pose an enormous challenge to traditional infrastructure such as the conventional utility grids. Decentralised energy systems like solar can successfully fill up this gap in geographically challenging vulnerable landscapes like the Sundarbans.
Since its inception in 2011, WWF India, in partnership and consultation with local communities and other stakeholders, has so far installed six solar DC microgrids and one solar AC microgrid in the Satjelia and Kumirmari islands of the Sundarbans region. Post-Amphan, the local communities have been able to successfully repair and operationalise all functional solar micro grids in these islands.
“Cyclone Amphan uprooted trees, electric poles and snapped wires but together we made the solar microgrids up and running within days”, says Amal Mondol, Secretary of one of the Village Energy Committees set up by WWF India.
The solar microgrids stood strong as a testament to their robustness and established themselves as places of emergency electricity sanctuaries within the Satjelia and Kumirmari Islands.
Satjelia and Kumirmari islands’ journey from the struggle for basic electricity to community-owned, managed and operated solar energy systems inspires many villages in the Sundarbans region and beyond. Falling under the gambit of the project ‘Sahasra Jyoti’, this microgrid set up by WWF India is the largest non-government renewable energy initiative of its kind in the Sundarbans.
These solar microgrids with a combined installed capacity of 84.12 kW electrify around 700 rural forest fringe households, benefitting over 3000 men, women and children. Out of the electrified houses, 60% fall below the poverty line. Besides, these microgrids provide round the clock grid-quality electricity at an affordable price to some small businesses and rural institutions such as schools, disaster relief shelters, etc. This project has also made it possible to install 90 solar-powered street lights, significantly reducing the risk of negative human-wildlife interactions.
An interesting aspect of this project is that these microgrids have been planned, designed and installed in consultation with local Gram Panchayats, who now own the systems and Village Energy Committees, which manage and operate them.
WWF's Project Sahasra Jyoti in the Sundarbans has been supported by multiple corporates and individuals. Some of the partners include Bank of America, Schneider Electric India Foundation, IndusInd Bank, Bain Capability Center, Tata Trent, and H&M. Also, knowledge partners like Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT-International), Australia and Schneider Electric India Foundation (SEIF) partnered with WWF India to support the design and installation of these solar microgrids.
The solar microgrids in the Sundarbans landscape have created an enormous impact by presenting a technology option of decentralised clean energy generation which could be owned, operated and managed by the community itself. This solution has eased the lives of the people while opening up socio-economic development opportunities and delivering safe, reliable, affordable, and environment-friendly electricity to the communities.