Fayaz Ahmed’s Interview with Chetan Singh Solanki, The Solar Man of India
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Fayaz Ahmed: First of all, tell our readers a little about yourself and a little about your educational and professional background.
Chetan: Hi everyone. I am a professor and learner. My education, research and field experience in the field of solar over two decades has made me wiser, with which I talk and promote energy swaraj.
I am a faculty at Department of Energy Science and Engineering, IIT Bombay and Founder of Energy Swaraj Foundation. I belong to small village of Nemit in Khargone District of Madhya Pradesh. I have done my B.Tech from SGSITS, Indore, and my M.Tech from IIT Bombay. I received my Ph.D. from IMEC (Ketholik University) Leuven, Belgium, a leading R&D and innovation hub in micro and nano-electronics. I have been working in renewable energy sector for past 20 years with the service as an academician and Professor at IIT Bombay since 17 years. In 2019, I had founded the Energy Swaraj Foundation to take the concept of Energy by Locals, for Locals across the world. I have now taken a long leave from IIT Bombay to pursue the Energy Swaraj Yatra for 11 years.
Fayaz Ahmed: Prof. Solanki, you have been called “Solar Man of India” by Times of India, The Hindu and India Today. Some people also call you “Solar Gandhi”. Because of your remarkable work in the field of Solar in India, were you always sure about working in solar energy or some event put you on this path? Please walk us through your journey why and how it all started.
Chetan: Well, being born into the small village, my primary school had just one classroom and a teacher at that time and having studied in the light of the kerosene lamp, I was surely committed to providing clean energy to all from an early age.
I started out with a small solar lamp project in Madhya Pradesh. However, the project was not very successful because the lamps started failing and there was no provision of local repairs to revive this lamp. Based on this experience, I started with the Million Solar Lamp Project wherein the locals assembled, distributed and repaired the lamps. This project was very successful and based on this success during the culmination ceremony the then Minister of New & Renewable Energy, Shri. Piyush Goyalji sanctioned the 70 lakhs solar lamp project, and we named it as Solar Urja (energy) through Localization for Sustainability (SoULS) initiative. W-e have provided solar study lamps to more than 7 million students who had no or unreliable electricity supply. This was done during 2015-18 by training about 9,000 rural women, who assembled, sold, and maintained these solar lamps locally. The project got spread to nearly 40,000 villages across 7 states. About 1000 women are now self-employed and running their solar shops. For this work, we also won the Empowering Billion Lives competition of IEEE and received a global grand prize of US$100,000. With this grant money, we founded the Energy Swaraj Foundation.
Fayaz Ahmed: As a sustainable energy graduate passionate about eliminating energy poverty and improving environmental sustainability, I find Energy Swaraj Movement very encouraging and inspiring. Could you please tell us more about this Energy Swaraj Movement and how well this movement doing?
Chetan: Energy Swaraj Movement is a stepping stone towards energy access, energy sustainability, and climate change mitigation. The Movement sets to bring a philosophical understanding and practical acceptance in society, at large, for the adoption of the solar solutions in a disciplined manner for fulfilling 100% energy needs. Energy literacy, energy conservation, local energy generation, energy efficiency, energy discipline, energy independence are all going to be the various dimensions of the Energy Swaraj Movement.
People from all spheres have been joining this Energy Swaraj Movement. The things have been moving in positive direction.
Fayaz Ahmed: Prof. Solanki, you are well renowned name in renewable energy, especially in the solar sector of India and have won many national and international awards. Please tell us about one award or achievement you are most proud of.
Chetan: Winning the Empowering Billion Lives competition of IEEE and receiving a global grand prize of US$100,000 has been most memorable experience. With this grant money, we could form the Energy Swaraj Foundation, to take the concept of Energy Swaraj to the world.
Fayaz Ahmed: Around 1.1 billion people across the world are still without any electricity of which 234 million reside in India (IEA, 2017). In your opinion, what are the key challenges faced by the Government of India in the electrification of the millions of powerless communities in India and also briefly comment how those challenges could be overcome.
Chetan: The entire approach of taking grid electricity to the powerless communities is flawed in my view, at least in todays context. People live in distributed manner, so should be energy generation be also in distributed manner. Fortunately the current development in solar technologies allows us to do so. Energy Swaraj or energy by locals for locals is the most viable and feasible way of powering powerless communities.
Fayaz Ahmed: What role do you see solar energy playing in electrifying these powerless rural communities in India and why do you think that the involvement of local communities is crucial for successfully powering remote areas using solar energy?
Chetan: It is not just the electrification through solar, but the energy swaraj approach can help them in getting skill development, livelihood creation, confidence in technology, local economy strengthening, and independence on other people. Therefore I feel that solar electricity can bring all round growth.
Fayaz Ahmed: India often makes headlines for its impressive renewable power achievements. What are the most exciting developments you have seen in India’s sustainable energy transition journey so far? Are there any specific sectors within renewable that are doing better than others in India?
Chetan: Overall capacity of renewable energy installation in the country is amazing story, specifically in such short time. Particularly solar PV sector made tremendous growth.
Fayaz Ahmed: India’s 2018 National Energy Plan (NEP) calls for an incredible 275 GW of total renewable energy capacity by 2027. In your view, can this and the overall 275 GW target realistically be met on time?
Chetan: Yes, I believe that the target can be achieved in time. However, even if we do that by installing large power plants, I would say we have done a ‘good’ job, but not the ‘great’ job. The same amount of installation in distributed manner can bring revolution in the country and help millions of people.
Fayaz Ahmed: What changes would you like to see in the solar industry in India? And what regulatory change do you think would advance the solar energy in India the most?
Chetan: I would like industry to switch approach to be more decentralized.
Fayaz Ahmed: Going forward, what role do you see yourself playing in the future development and adoption of solar energy in India as well across the globe?
Chetan: I feel that I can work to bring awareness to about 1 billion people and more than that encourage millions of people in switching 100% to solar energy.
I am undertaking the 11 years long Energy Swaraj Yatra on a solar-powered bus. Crossing the length & the breadth of the country, talking to people, training people in solar, demonstrating solar viability, reaching to millions of people, the yatra encompasses all. While on the yatra, I will be living in the bus.
During the Yatra, myself and the team will visit different institutions, schools, colleges, NGOs, entrepreneurs and suppliers, manufacturers to bring awareness and call them for action at the individual level. The yatra would include interaction with people, talks, discussions, debates, as well as training, demonstrations of solar solutions, and technologies. The yatra will provide the first-hand feel of various solar technologies and will encourage people to surrender their electricity connection and adopt 100% to solar energy solutions.
Chetan Singh Solanki,
Professor at IIT Bombay