In an Indian ashram, its solar power that nourishes the spiritual


Ashram food hallThe ashram's kitchen serves free meals to more than 35,000 devotees daily. UNDP Photo

It was a hot summer day in Shirdi in the Indian state of Maharashtra. A wind blew in from the arid plains, covering its tracks with a patina of dust. Thousands of devotees at the Sai Baba temple had lined up for a ritual meal offered at the Prasadalaya (a free eatery run by the trust), which feeds more than 35,000 visitors daily.

This ashram – a cornerstone of tradition and spiritual faith for many – has undergone a sea change in it’s reliance on fossil fuels. As we walked through the clatter of aluminium plates in the food hall, Amrut G. Jagtap, an engineer at the Prasadalaya explained that meals for about 17,000 devotees are now cooked using thermal energy from solar technology installed on the roof of the building.

In a country of 1.2 billion people, where fossil fuels are in high demand for their use as cooking fuel, the climate could well allow a significant reduction in energy use (and family expenses) if reliance on alternative energy could find a foothold. If  solar technology can be harnessed at an industrial scale, however, it can partially meet energy needs and reduce the demand for costly fossil fuels, such as diesel and coal. At that scale, the savings in energy consumption and to the environment – would make a massive difference.

 Solar concentrators at Shirdi, Maharashtra. UNDP Photo.

This is exactly what we are trying to help with in a project UNDP is currently implementing in India with a grant assistance from Global Environment Facility (GEF). There are about 100 solar-concentrator based industrial scale energy solutions world-wide, of which 70 are in India.

So far the project has set up 15 demonstration sites across the country as a way to establish them as feasible alternatives to expensive and polluting fossil fuels.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, the saying goes.

The ashram I visited in Shirdi saves on an average about 260 kg of liquefied petroleum gas per day – which, in a year, adds up to the equivalent of doing six round trips to the moon in one of India’s iconic autorickshaws. In order to ensure the technology is adopted through local innovations, state-of-the-art research centres are being established at India’s National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE) and University of Pune.

In 2013, the project has commissioned installation of 7,500 square meters of solar concentrator area for thermal applications in 12 industrial units. Currently, these are at various stages of installation. This rate of installation is 2.5 times to that of base year 2011.

The rate of installation is expected to increase in coming years with the influence of CSH project.

 In light of its success with solar concentrator systems, the Saibaba Trust is now planning to install CSH systems at nearby Ashram schools in rural locations in the Maharashtra state.

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