Sunshine Schools bring benefits aplenty to West Bengal state

In the Indian state of West Bengal, solar power is no longer just something students learn about in their science textbooks. Now they get to see it in action every day, and their schools can count on reliable power thanks to West Bengal’s Sunshine Schools project. 

Run by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency, the project is bringing reliable energy to the state’s classrooms, generating savings that are enriching teaching, adding practical lessons to the school curriculum, and spreading knowledge of solar power in isolated rural areas.

School students and staffs clean solar rooftop panels at the Akshaynagar Jnanadamoyee Vidyaniketan school in Kakdwip, West Bengal, India on August 29, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Pranay Singh

The project, which has so far covered 1,800 schools across the state, plans to install mini solar energy plants – each costing 450,000 Indian rupees ($6,210) – in 1,000 schools every year, eventually reaching a total of 25,000 and adding at least 250 megawatts of solar power to the grid by 2030. The mini plants only require a one-time investment for installation and don’t need batteries because they are connected to the grid. Any surplus solar power generated is fed into the national grid and is offset against the cost of what schools take from the grid when their solar systems cannot meet their needs..

In the remote town of Kakdwip, solar energy powers the whole school for 1,600 students, including its computers, kitchens, science labs and even welding machines in vocational classes. Before the solar system was installed in 2018, the school could not count on the power supply, especially in summer.

“Our students now get to see and understand the real-time efficacy of solar power,” says Saktiram Das, the teacher who monitors the solar system at Akshaynagar Jnanadamoyee Vidyaniketan High School. “They learn from a young age the importance of clean energy and how it keeps our environment clean.”

Besides cutting greenhouse gas emissions and providing a steady power supply, solar power has substantially cut the schools’ energy bills. Where the Bankisole Akshoy Kumar Institution, a high school in Bankura district, used to pay 15,000 to 17,000 rupees every three months, it now pays almost nothing – and has used the savings for tree-planting, hiring teachers and sanitation upkeep.

For the first five years, WBREDA covers the maintenance costs. Then schools pay annual maintenance fees of about 9,000 rupees.

Pranay Singh, an electrical engineer at AKA Logistics, which works with the WBREDA to install the systems, says the systems are easy to maintain. His team trains a few staff and students at each school to clean the solar panels with a moist cloth to get rid of dust or bird droppings, and to manage minor faults. Remote monitoring makes it possible to check on them between visits.

The systems mean each school reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 tonnes a year, about as much as a car produces driving 25,000 miles. So the Sunshine Schools project is a cheap and reliable way to help India move towards its green goals.

But it is also achieving equity in education between urban and rural areas, and that is one of its goals. “One of our basic aims … is to connect remote schools with robust and easily available power, so that even rural children can benefit from the latest educational facilities,” says governing board member Ratan Mondal.

At Bogdahara Siddikiya High Madrasah, a school for minority students in Bankura district, the school now runs computer classes and activities including mock parliamentary sessions and health programs and thus opened up new opportunities for learning. The project has also spread that learning far beyond the school, says senior teacher Liakat Ali. “It was a completely new and enlightening concept for us. The system is spreading awareness not only among students, but also in their homes and the surrounding villages.”

This story is based on a story from Thomson Reuters Foundation, which does a great job of covering sustainable development around the world. It was reported by Moushumi Basu and edited  by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling.