Recently, three students specializing in technology and sustainable development cycled all over Auroville surveying buildings and talking to their inhabitants. Their aim? To find out if Auroville’s image of being a renewable energy community is matched by the reality.
Today Auroville has the reputation of being one of the most
important demonstration sites for renewable energy (RE) technologies
in India. This is based on solid achievement: the community
is home to around 500 kW of photovoltaics (which includes the
largest stand-alone PV power plant in India), 30 windmills,
20 biogas units, a ground-breaking solar bowl, and there is
continuing experimentation in areas like solar electric transport,
solar desalination, and plant oil as a diesel substitute. Auroville
is also increasingly sharing its RE experience and expertise
with other parts of India. For example AuroRE, the unit which
promotes renewable energy through the intelligent use of financial
mechanisms, has recently installed 175 solar pump sets in the
Punjab, AuREka has erected 40 windmills in Tibetan settlements,
CSR has fabricated biogas units for the Andaman Islands, and
Auroville Energy Products is involved in a wind generation
project in Bengal.
The Master Plan submitted to the
Government last year states that “Auroville's vision is to become energy independent and
self-sufficient, with all its energy requirements met from
renewable sources.” ‘Vision', of course, rather gives the game
away, for it indicates that, in spite of the achievements so
far, there is still a long way to go before Auroville is truly
a RE community. Why is this? Why do Aurovilians still draw
heavily upon non-renewable sources for their energy? And what
is the experience of those who have embraced RE? Three students
on a course organized by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de
Lausanne and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, spent
a month interviewing a cross-section of Aurovilians—RE users,
implementers and promoters of RE technologies, architects and
town planners—in an attempt to answer these questions. Their
final report, Sustainable Energy in Auroville: the Vision
and the Reality, is something of an eye-opener.
Why doesn't everybody use RE?
For their conclusion is that while
Auroville is well on its way to a RE future, it is liable
to be a considerable time before the vision of the Master
Plan is fulfilled. This is due to a number of factors, some
of which are beyond our control. For example, most renewable
energy technologies have steep up-front costs in comparison
with conventional energy delivery systems. This is why renewable
energy proponents the world over are awaiting technological
breakthroughs in RE technologies to make them more efficient
and comparable in price to conventional technologies. However, “with the advent of innovations like
fuel cells and the increasing cost of conventional energy generation,
this is likely to happen in five years,” believes Hemant, the
coordinator of AuroRE.
Renewable energy systems also require more maintenance than
conventional energy systems, thus requiring a higher level
of commitment from the end-user. In fact, while the main reason
why Aurovilians switch to RE technologies seems to be the freedom
from power-cuts so prevalent on the Tamil Nadu Electricity
Board grid, many of them are also motivated by the feeling
that they are doing something for the environment. Does this
mean that Aurovilians have a high level of environmental consciousness?
The students conclude that while the environmental consciousness
of Aurovilians is well above the average in India, it compares
unfavourably with that found in some of the Western nations.
By that they mean that, even though there is widespread awareness
among Aurovilians of the need to protect the environment, often
it doesn't translate into action. Why not? It's not just tamas or
the cost, or the ubiquity of the conventional grid, or the
difficulty of obtaining good quality components or renewable
energy devices in India. It's also the fact that it's uneconomic
to run certain devices and systems on renewable energy at present.
But how does one discover this? In fact, it is not easy to
obtain information and implement certain renewable energy alternatives
in Auroville at present. For example, if you are considering
setting up a solar-powered electrical system in your house,
you have to go to three or four different groups in Auroville
to obtain all the relevant information and hardware. Moreover,
since different groups provide different components of the
system nobody takes overall responsibility for design and maintenance.
The danger of ending up with a badly designed system is further
exacerbated by the tendency of some Aurovilians to go for cheaper
components to offset the steep price of solar panels.
The sustainable use of RE
Yet even among those Aurovilians
who have chosen to use renewable energy systems the level
of environmental consciousness is not always high. As the
students put it, “Renewable energy
can only be sustainable if the energy produced is used in an
efficient way”. In other words, it's not enough to generate
your energy from renewable sources; you have to use that energy
wisely and appropriately. The students found examples of people
who use windmills to pump water yet who fail to fix leaking
taps, or who generate their electricity through solar panels
but then use energy-inefficient light bulbs.
In fact, the sustainable use
of renewable energy, given its present state of development,
seems inextricably linked with a commitment to a certain
lifestyle—one which is
relatively modest and low in its impact upon the environment.
To illustrate this, the students cite an Auroville community
which initially embraced renewable energy and purchased a large
number of solar panels. However, when the inhabitants realized
that it would be difficult and costly to run washing-machines
and fridges on solar power, they chose to tap into the conventional
grid instead. Environmental consciousness also has an important
social component. The students studied two communities which
ran almost exclusively on renewable energy. One is a success,
the other a failure. What made the difference? The successful
community had designed its system carefully, everybody was
very committed to making it work and so they undertook to live
within the overall capacity of the system. The renewable energy
system of the other community was badly designed from the outset
(the wiring alone was done by at least 12 different people!).
When the RE pioneers left the new residents were not committed
to renewable energy, they didn't have the technical capacity
to maintain the system and didn't feel the need to adapt their
individual needs to the overall capacity of the system. Consequently
in this community there are frequent power cuts and the residents
now want to purchase either a generator or to hook up to the
The other main factors identified
by the students as preventing Auroville moving more quickly
towards a renewable energy future are the lack of building
codes or by-laws which would mandate, for example, the provision
of solar hot water heaters in all new buildings, the poor
coordination between different groups working in the renewable
energy field (which is often a failure of systems thinking,
or of considering the overall picture when planning a new
project), and the lack of data regarding the total energy
needs of the community, and even of the total installed renewable
energy capacity (the students were told by three different ‘experts'
that the total capacity was 65kW, 200kW and 500kW).
Similarly, in the field of construction
(houses and apartments represent a large amount of embodied
energy) the students did not find a high level of awareness
among Aurovilian architects concerning the principles of
energy-efficient and solar-passive architecture, and even
among those who knew there were very few instances of them
putting the principles into practice in an integrated way. “This was a surprise,” admitted one of
the students in a final feedback session. “While you have achieved
much, we had expected Auroville to be far more advanced in
its use of renewable energy, energy-efficient architecture
and water conservation programmes.”
The students make a number of recommendations. They propose
a general sensitization campaign to make Aurovilians and villagers
not only aware of the need to be energy-efficient, but also
to act upon that awareness (the AV Electrical Service is already
planning to run sensitization courses for Aurovilians this
summer). In this context, they suggest that an efficiency unit
be set up to survey individual households and give advice.
Such a unit could also help coordinate the activities of the
different RE groups in Auroville. In terms of installing complex
RE systems, they propose that one group should be responsible
for the whole installation, and that a central maintenance
unit be set up which would maintain all RE systems in the community.
At the planning level, building codes should be developed
which would make the utilization of certain RE technologies
mandatory. For example, solar hot water systems are comparatively
cheap, easy to install and save enormous amounts of electricity.
The students also suggest that we should study the possibility
of creating mini-grids which would deliver renewable energy
efficiently to groups of communities, using whichever source
of RE is appropriate to that area. Another option they mention
is generating energy by renewable means outside Auroville (i.e.
by setting up a wind farm in the south of Tamil Nadu) and then
selling this to the state grid to offset the energy we use
in the community. In fact, AuroRE is already planning to make
this its next big project.
However, the biggest problem at present regarding planning
a RE strategy for the community is a lack of essential information.
Consequently the report recommends that we begin by documenting
all the RE systems in Auroville as well as the total energy
needs of the community. There also needs to be an environmental
impact assessment made of the way we generate and use our energy
so that everybody is aware of the environmental cost of using
conventional energy technologies.
The report does not make comfortable reading. But if it manages
to make us clamber off our laurels and start re-examining how
far we still have to go before we become an energy-sustainable
community, all those kilometers cycled in the heat and the
dust by the intrepid students will have been very worthwhile.