How One School became an Electricity Supplier

By Tanaya Singh onOct. 06, 2015inEnergy

The Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) in Pondicherry has been operating on green energy since September 2014.

Many schools encourage their students to switch off the fans and lights after use, plant trees and take other initiatives to save energy. However, very few go beyond just asking them to take precautions and save energy. SAICE is different.

Sri Aurobindo Ashram

And it has done so by devising and implementing a project almost entirely on its own.

SAICE is a part of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. It was in 2012 that Dr. Brahmanand Mohanty, an alumnus of SAICE, came up with the idea of making the ashram energy efficient with the help of a sustainable model.

“As the Indian economy continues to grow, so will its energy consumption. The country’s primary energy consumption more than doubled between 1990 and 2011. As the demand continues to grow, keeping pace with the GDP growth, the energy sector is struggling to deliver a secure supply of energy,” says Dr. Mohanty, explaining why he thought this move was important. Hailing from Odisha, Dr. Mohanty is currently working as the Visiting Professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, and has been engaged in the area of energy and environment managements since the last three decades.

According to Dr. Mohanty, many rural areas of the country do not have access to electricity. And urban India uses energy-intensive appliances, resulting in electricity shortage.

The entrance of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education

Dr. Mohanty had a vision of developing a system that would make SAICE self-dependent for energy. With this in mind, he had a meeting with the trustees of the Ashram. They gave him the go ahead and even suggested that pilot research activities should be taken up with the active participation of the young teachers and students at the Institute. And then it all began. The whole project was conducted in two phases from 2012 to 2015.

Phase One: The Pilot

The pilot research took place between 2012 and 2014. The idea was to demonstrate that it is possible for an electricity consumer to achieve net-energy positive status (to generate more energy than consumed) by adopting measures to lower the energy demand through energy efficiency and conservation, and producing electricity using solar energy. To begin with, the energy requirements of SAICE were measured, in order to understand the pattern of electricity consumption over a long period of time.

Following this analysis, all inefficient lamps, fans, air conditioners, and computers, which had been in use since a long period of time, were substituted by more energy-efficient alternatives to lower the energy demand by more than 25 percent, without compromising on the quality and service.

Replacement of energy-inefficient appliances by more efficient alternatives

With a better understanding of how much energy the educational institute was consuming, they came to the decision that a solar power plant should be installed inside the campus so as to meet all the energy demands in-house. Thus, a 17 kWp rooftop solar power plant was set up in the school by an Auroville-based solar installer.

Teachers and students were involved in the entire process right from the start. They helped in the basic wiring, setting up the panels on the rooftop, and more.

Students of SAICE actively involved in the installation of the rooftop solar power plant.

“This allowed them to get a better grasp of the working principles of a grid-tie solar power generation system and they also got practical exposure to the various aspects of the solar system to be taken into consideration in order to ensure its proper functioning over a long time frame,” says Dr. Mohanty.

With this solar plant, SAICE evolved from being an electricity consumer to an electricity producer. This research initiative was supported and recognized by the Government of Pondicherry, as well as the Power Grid Corporation of India (PGCI), as part of the pioneering Smart Grid Pilot project being implemented for the first time in India. Smart Grid facilitates a two-way electricity delivery system, that is, integration of renewable energy sources followed by smart transmission and distribution from the renewable source to the nearby consumers.

Thus, after the solar plant was set up, 700 kWh of excess energy was exported back into the power grid during the first month.

A wide-angle photo of the solar panels installed on SAICE rooftop 

Phase Two: Giving More than they Take

This phase started after the announcement of the Solar Energy Regulations by the Joint Electricity Regulatory Commission (JERC) for Goa and Union Territories in December 2014. One of the features of this regulation is group net metering. What is that?

“If someone owns more than one property connected to the power grid, it is possible for him/her to install bigger capacity solar plants in one or more buildings and use the excess electricity that is generated to adjust the electricity consumed in other buildings on rooftops where there is no solar installation. For example, the excess 700 kWh that was produced by the rooftop solar system in the school last September could be used by the Ashram to reduce or avoid the payment of electricity in another Ashram building,” explains Dr. Mohanty.

As the Ashram is the owner of many buildings, for its various departments, the school was able to utilise this feature.

Thus, in the second phase, which took shape in March 2015, the rooftop solar power plant was expanded to achieve a cumulative solar power generation capacity of 50 kWp. The plant has now been extended to four buildings inside the ashram complex and it generates an average of 6,500 kWh electricity per month, which is more than three times the present electricity consumption of the school.

The excess then is used for the electricity needs of other buildings of the ashram.

Results of the data from the bi-directional smart electric meter showing how SAICE had become a net electricity exporter after the installation of the 17 kWp solar power plant. 

“The main operation of the school is during the daytime and there are limited activities beyond sunshine hours. The electricity produced by the solar plant not only takes care of all the needs of SAICE during the day but also exports 161 kWh of electricity to the power grid. On the other hand, only about 32 kWh of electricity is drawn from the power grid after sunset…This demonstrates how school buildings that are mainly operational during daytime can adopt rooftop solar systems to not only meet their own electricity needs but also assist in bridging the shortfall in the grid supply,” says Dr. Mohanty.

The organization that helped with the development of the power plants also developed a remote monitoring system called Wattmon, which tracks the performance of the four solar power plants, online. It also monitors the voltage, current, power output, solar inverter efficiency, and total electricity produced at any time of the day.

The Ashram already produces its own rice, lentils, vegetable, milk and cooking oil that are needed in the community dining room on a daily basis. This is an added step towards sustainability.

A side-view of the solar panels installed on SAICE rooftop

Noticing the benefits of this system, people at the Ashram and in the nearby places are trying to take suitable steps to gradually reduce their dependence on fossil-fuel fired power plants. More and more students are also keen to learn about how solar energy can be harnessed to serve humanity and they now dream of having a more sunny future.

The entire project cost about Rs. 1 crore and was completely funded by the Ashram itself.

A bird’s-eye-view photo of the solar panels installed on SAICE rooftop with the Indian Ocean in the backdrop
But this, according to Dr. Mohanty, is a profitable deal. Because the cost-benefit analysis of the solar power project shows that the capital investment on the project can be recovered roughly in 10 years from the savings in electricity bills.

“The main message of this research initiative is that those who have access to energy and can well afford it…can also contribute to making the scarce energy resources available for all those who do not have access,” he concludes.

You can contact Dr. Mohanty by writing to him at [email protected].

First published on The Better India under the title How One School Used Solar Power to Go from Being an Electricity Consumer to Electricity Producer

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