Energy by locals for locals

When people talk about scaling up a project, they usually start small. But everything’s relative, and for the Solar Urja (energy) through the Localization for Sustainability (SoULS) initiative in India, the leap was from one million to seven million solar lights for Indian students.

And because the Energy Swaraj Foundation promotes ‘energy by locals for locals’, the project trained about 9,000 local women, who assembled, sold, and maintained these solar lamps regionally, reaching nearly 40,000 villages across seven states.

So not only did seven million students get lights, but about 1,000 women are now self-employed and running their own solar shops. This work, which took place 2015-2018, won the Empowering Billion Lives competition organized by IEEE in 2019 and received a global grand prize of $100,000 USD.

Energy Swaraj Foundation

The Million Solar Urja Lamp-SoUL Project was an initiative of the Assam State Rural Livelihoods Mission in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. Self Help Group members were trained to assemble Solar Lamps and sell them to the school children at a subsidized rate of Rs.100/- per lamp. The program concentrated on villages which have nearly 50% kerosene users. So the project served two purposes – it brings light to the homes of the children at the same time is a source of livelihood for the SHG members.

This You Tube video shows the Ujoni Majuli Birangana Self Help Group in the village of Jenegerai Village in Majuli District, which was made in Feb. 15, 2019.

The idea originated with Chetan Singh Solanki, who was born in the small village of Nemit in Madhya Pradesh state. “Having studied by the kerosene lamp dim light, I became committed to providing energy to all locals, specifically cleaner energy. Initially I started out with a small solar lamp project in Madhya Pradesh; however, because of a lack of community involvement for its implementation, it failed.”

India has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 350 million children less than 14 years of age, says First Green Solar Academy. But 221 million people residing in India are still without electricity access and many more have a poor quality of supply. This affects young people studying at home in the evenings. “Alongside ‘Right to Education’, it is desirable to provide ‘Right to Clean Light’ and hence there is a need for a countrywide, self-sustainable solar lamp program.”

Learning from experience, Prof. Solanki worked with two colleagues, Jayendran Venkateswaran and NC Narayanan, to start the Million Solar Lamp Project where local communities assembled, distributed, and repaired the lamps.

Between 2014 and 2015, a million lamps were distributed in four Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Odisha, covering more than 10,900 villages. There were 54 assembly and distribution centres and 350 SRCs in operation, with training provided to 1,409 local people. 735,000 lamps were distributed in just nine months in 2014-5, while the remaining 265,000 lamps were distributed in 4.5 months in 2015-2016. Following the project’s success, the then Minister of New & Renewable Energy provided funding for the solar lamp project. 

Prof. Solanki, who had worked in renewable energy for 20 years and at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay for 16 years, realized that “without collective public action and engagement, climate changes cannot be driven or enforced, and in order to reach out to masses, a multidisciplinary approach must be adopted so that people irrespective of their backgrounds can take concrete steps in this direction.”

In 2019, he founded the Energy Swaraj Foundation (ESF), which literally means ‘achieving energy independence’, to transform the concept of energy by locals from locals to the world level. And he has taken a leave of absence from IIT until 2030 to achieve the target of making a billion people energy and climate literate, and nurturing 100,000 entrepreneurs to encourage a million people to connect to electricity.

“My idea was simple,” he said in an interview. “The technology should be such that anybody and everybody can make use of it on their own. It should also be open-sourced so that mass-adoption of the technology can be promoted. Furthermore, the product design was made to withstand the difficult conditions of the rural settings. The rough and tough use of the lamp was encouraged. Our approach has always been community-based and rests on understanding the barriers and enablers of clean energy technologies.”


A journey towards Energy Swaraj (independence): Energy by locals for locals. iScience, Oct 19, 2021

One million solar study lamps scheme successfully implemented. Electrical India, Apr. 5, 2018

Million Solar Urja Lamp Programme: A supply chain experience. IEEE, 2015

One million solar study lamps distributed: Govt. India Times, Mar. 6, 2018

Clean Light for Children to Study: Million Solar Urja Lamp (SoUL) Programme. FirstGreen Solar Academy, Feb. 28 2020

Cover image: Electrical India