- Odisha has a single-point grievance redressal system for complaints related to community-level solar projects.
- This is significant in cyclone-prone Odisha where many rural areas report non-functional solar street lights and other systems, due to lack of maintenance after installation.
- When solar energy setups are defunct because of no maintenance, it results in people losing confidence in renewable energy projects as a whole, note experts.
Basudev Purohit is a headmaster at the Duruba Ashram School in Nandapur Block in the Koraput district of Odisha. A 10 kilowatt solar project setup in 2019 caters to the entire energy needs of his school, which caters to the tribal students from the region. There was a glitch in the setup last year, in November 2021. However, within two days of reporting the issue to a state government helpline, the solar energy system resumed energising the school. The efficiency of the helpline, that is part of the state’s mechanism to monitor and maintain these projects, is in contrast to several rural solar projects in the country, including in Odisha, plagued by lack of maintenance and non-reporting of a failed system to the concerned authorities.
“We had a functional solar energy system which was taking care of our energy needs to run lights and fans. But it developed a snag five months back. We reported it to the helpline and within two days the issue was sorted out and our solar energy based electrical appliances started working again,” Purohit told Mongabay-India. This quick turnaround repair became possible with the one-point mechanism of the set up by the state government’s Odisha Renewable Energy Development Agency (OREDA), called the OREDA Stakeholder Engagement and Asset Management System (OSEAMS).
OSEAMS is now being used to monitor all the state’s solar projects and ensure timely scheduled maintenance during the warranty period of five years. Later, it will be connected to rural communities where the projects are installed, to facilitate corrective maintenance for identification and rectification of faulty systems and equipment.
“We have now developed a robust system to ensure maintenance of our solar assets. This system is now also getting upgraded to add more technologies. Under the system, tickets are raised every 90 days during the initial five years of solar projects where vendors are alerted to do their scheduled maintenance work. They are also required to send the proof of completed work, with pictures and other details which are fed into the system,” Ashok Choudhury, Joint Director, OREDA told Mongabay-India.
He explained that under this system, OREDA maintains details of the solar assets that it has installed, including all state projects and some central government projects too. “This includes details of installation, vendors responsible for the different components of the unit, photos, and location of the system. Usually, in rural areas, such systems fail and people do not know whom to contact for repair issues. With technology, we have tried to bridge the gap to ensure that they get a single point of contact and remaining work of coordination and repair is taken care of by us,” he said.
The helpline contact numbers are now displayed at the points of the solar installations and available to citizens 24×7 to request repairs. Though the system kicked off in 2015, it has now been updated with details of each project which includes inventory like the number of panels installed, brands of panels, batteries, wires, and others used, warranty period, list of all the services done and more.
The maintenance technology partner of OREDA is Parameter Softwares, which manages the system. Founder J.P. Jagdev, while showing the online complaint redressal system at his office in Bhubaneswar, told Mongabay-India that “most of these projects are set up free of cost for public use either by the government or corporations.”
He noted that unlike government solar projects, which are well protected and maintained, decentralised community-level solar installations like solar street lights often face the issue of lack of maintenance and monitoring, leading to their failure.
“After five years of the warranty period, the community is supposed to take care of the project. But, in how many cases do you see the communities being trained for its upkeep, or in how many cases are people linked to the vendor who installed the project to approach in case the system develops some glitch? Are they aware of who is the authority to approach when glitches develop during any point of time since the installation of such projects? Our aim is to address these issues with a single solution,” Jagdev said.
He said policies declaring the benefits of such projects, remain silent about what happens to the system’s upkeep, after five years of maintenance warranty.
“When such projects are announced, there are major declarations that this could lead to the reduction of carbon emissions. This declaration is based on the hypothetical calculation that the project will run for 15 years which is not the case in many projects. Many such projects prove to be botched-up projects. This has happened in Odisha, Bengal, Bihar, and many other states,” he said.
The system now has an online database of 48,000 solar assets which were developed through OREDA. The agency claimed that it was a unique experiment to monitor and maintain solar assets. Jagdev said that complaints received through the system are attended to within two days and resolved within one week.
Experts working in the sector claimed that the maintenance of solar assets is paramount to the success of such projects. “Usually, the solar panels have a shelf life of 15-25 years whereas the batteries can work up to 5 years and need replacement after that. However, scheduled yearly maintenance is needed to check the efficiency of such projects and fix the bottlenecks. If left unattended, it could lead to less efficiency and ultimately lead to them becoming a defunct unit,” said Saswat Nayak, Project Manager, Solaris Power, a Bhubaneswar-based solar development firm.
“Also, cleaning of solar panels is required every three months. Solar street lights are more prone to the accumulation of dust on their surface. If not cleaned regularly their efficiency decreases within a short span of time,” he added.
Solar street light issues
While government renewable energy projects are often set up under controlled and guarded environments, decentralised projects, such as solar street lights in rural areas, are managed by people of the community who may not have expertise and knowledge of these systems and their maintenance.
In states such as Odisha, the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has been installing rural solar street lights under the Atal Jyoti Yojana through EESL (Energy Efficiency Services Limited), a joint venture of Public Sector Undertaking (PSUs) under the Ministry of Power. OREDA has been managing some of such rural street light projects initiated by the state government through District Mineral Foundation (DMF) funds in mining-affected areas, etc. According to MNRE norms, all solar vendors who install such projects need to mandatorily ensure its maintenance for the first five years.
To avoid glitches in standalone solar systems in rural areas, sources in OREDA claimed that they are now focussing on new ways to better control such systems. “We are now focussing on smaller centralised solar setups in local areas like solar trees or similar structures through which we can connect around 10-15 solar street lights for better management of such systems through a single point, for ease of maintenance. We are now doing this on an experimental basis. If it works well, we will scale it up,” an official from OREDA told Mongabay-India, requesting anonymity.
However, despite the efforts and claims by OREDA and the union government, there is still a lack of attention and reporting in several rural areas and their solar assets continue to deteriorate.
In the case of Thianal village in Deogarh district of Odisha, people claim that solar street lights were installed three years ago. But after three years the systems collapsed and no one came to maintain them. The residents are, therefore, apprehensive about any new renewable energy project.
The latest official data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) claims that Odisha has the maximum installed capacity of 597 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in the entire eastern India region.
Recently, Mongabay-India has also reported how Odisha’s first solar village, Barapitha, became a failed project as the solar unit was never repaired after it was damaged during cyclone Fani in 2019.
Odisha is highly prone to cyclones. Pratap Mohanty, Professor of Marine Sciences at Berhampur University at Ganjam said that between 1890 to 2021, Odisha has seen more than 96 cyclones. Some of the recent major cyclones include Fani, Hudhud, Titli, and Phailin.
Mohanty told Mongabay-India that the funnel-type geography of Odisha, with comparatively warmer waters and shallow sea waters close to the north Odisha border, makes the entire Odisha coast highly vulnerable to cyclonic storms.
Piyush Ranjan Rout, an urban planner based in Bhubaneswar claimed that solar projects in coastal states such as Odisha always face the threat of damages, and maintenance or timely action is needed to ensure there is no damage to such units.
“During cyclone Fani in 2019, we had seen that many of those solar consumers witnessed damages to their solar units if not dismantled timely. Solar projects in Odisha anyway face the threat from extreme weather events such as cyclones and thus maintenance and linkage to the vendors for timely action is the need of the hour,” he told Mongabay-India.
Banner image: A solar panel installed in a school in Konark. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.