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Auroville Adventure


May 2002

Auroville: a sustainable energy community?

- by Alan

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 grid.

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.”


Recommendations

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.

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