Imagine you are on a trek at an altitude of 11,000 ft, struggling to breathe while walking on a 2 feet wide path. Next, to a steep valley, a misstep will cost your life.
But a group of people from different parts of the world went through this unimaginable trek to electrify the 1000-year-old remotest village in Ladakh, Shade. The trekking group travelled 300+ Km through serpentine roads, streams and steep valleys via four wheelers and then trekked 125 Km to reach the village. The group spent 2 days in the village to set up 5 solar powered DC microgrids designed by ‘Global Himalayan Expedition’.
This is not the only remote village ‘Global Himalayan Expedition’ team has electrified. Till date, they have electrified 82 villages impacting over 35,000+ people. There are multiple organisations that provide basic electricity to villages which are easily accessible but there are very few that provide electricity to the villages that are not connected by roads and are remotely located. To reach these villages the team has to trek for multiple days from the last point of the motorable road.
How Did ‘Global Himalayan Expedition’ Start?
Paras Loomba, an electronics and communication engineer quit his corporate job after completing an International Antarctica Expedition in 2012 led by Robert Swan, OBE founder of 2041.
“I realised there is a huge need in India itself to combat climate change using technology. After returning to India, I started a similar program involving social impact. The plan is to utilise clean technology to combat climate change in remote Himalayan villages. This is how ‘Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE)’ started. The first expedition was joined by 20 people from 10 different countries,” said Paras.
The First And Second Expedition
Being the son of an army officer, Paras lived in many remote parts of North East and in J&K. Paras was already familiar with the topography of these regions. He chose Ladakh as it had a large number of off-grid trekkable villages that were not connected by road. For the first expedition, the Global Himalayan Expedition team established an education centre in 2013 called ‘Third Pole Education Base’, in a 14×20 room in Mahabodhi school in Leh, with an aim to impart digital and experiential education for the students of Ladakh. The school houses students from the surrounding 50 villages.
“ At the end of the school year, I visited one of the student’s village, Sumda Chenmo, which is located at 13,000 ft, that had never seen light in its 1000 years of existence. It took us 2 days to trek and reach the village. The village is beautiful with no roads and electricity. There it struck me, as engineers why cannot we provide this village with basic electricity,” said Paras.
At this juncture, Paras and his team decided to start the second expedition in 2014 to electrify this remote village using DC microgrid technology. The DC microgrid is easy to set up and also the voltage and current levels are low and not fatal to human beings as it may take days together to go to the nearest hospital.
Till now the team has electrified over 50 villages and most of these villages are remotely located on the hills. They have trekked for days and sometimes weeks to reach these villages.
The ‘Global Himalayan Expedition’ has three essential models for electrifying a remote mountain village.
- Expedition Model: The cost for the Solar DC microgrid is collected or crowd funded from the participants who get selected. Generally, 20 participants are selected for each expedition. If the cost of the DC microgrid is 1 lakh, each participant pays Rs. 5,000 to Global Himalayan Expedition along with his/her expedition fees. The team along with the participants goes on an expedition, sets up the microgrid and lights up the village.
- CSR funds: Many corporates spend their CSR funds to light up the villages. They fund the electrification costs through a foundation to GHE.
- Funded by villagers: The Global Himalayan Expedition team reaches out to different regional heads or councillors to know if there are any villages without electricity. Then the team with the help of a local mountain guide visits the village, mobilises villagers and creates awareness on solar based electrification. After clearing doubts of the villagers on the process of electrification and gathering of funds starts, two villagers of them are chosen to open a joint account in the nearest bank which is sometimes a two-day trek.
Every household in the village contributes Rs.100-150 in the bank account every month for maintenance of the grid. The amount is not huge for the villagers as they anyway have to spend hundreds of rupees every month for buying kerosene oil to light lamps during the night.
The villagers then visit a local Ladakhi GHE entrepreneur who confirms the deposit and relays the information to the GHE team in Delhi. The required panels, batteries and other equipment are sent through a truck from Delhi to Leh and then to the last motorable point near to the village.
From there, the villagers carry the equipment to their village on horses or donkeys. The setup of the equipment is taken care by the GHE team or through the expedition. Also, the team trains two people from the village for the maintenance of the grid. The GHE entrepreneur also looks after the service centre where the LED lights and other microgrid electronics are repaired.
There are multiple positive outcomes of electrification of villages.
- Energy entrepreneurs: Apart from electrifying the villages the team also trains two people from each village to maintain the solar microgrids. For every cluster of villages that GHE electrifies, GHE setups a service centre to service these grids. These service centres are run by GHE chosen entrepreneurs. The villagers then pay these GEH entrepreneurs for any kind of grid servicing or additional LED lights they may want to invest in.
- Village Transformation: One of the villages that the team electrified is Cha, located in the Zanskar valley of Ladakh. To reach the village from Leh one has to travel three days by four-wheelers and trek for two days. Once the electrification was completed the income in the village increased due to an increase in tourist homestays in their village. This brought additional income and now these villagers have access to television and information as they bought DC LED TVs from GHE. Most of the villages in this region depend on handicrafts and also tourists who trek. Before the advent of electricity, the tourists used to camp outside the village.
Now, seeing lights in the houses, they are preferring to stay at homes thus, increasing the revenue of the households. The trekkers pay extra and charge their mobiles and tablets. Due to the increase in the working hours, the families which depend on arts and crafts were able to make more number of handicrafts thus, increasing the income for the women.
- Health: Previously, the villagers used to burn hundreds of litres of kerosene in the night, especially in winters, resulting in pollution and in turn causing health hazards. Now the villagers do not have to buy and burn kerosene.
- Migration: The people who migrated from the villages are slowly returning as they see opportunities to work and get income.
“It is not about giving light. Light is just a starting point. It brings opportunities, it brings income, it brings happiness, preserves the ancient culture and heritage of the village and also arrests migration of people” said Paras.
The Global Himalayan Expedition team consists of 5 full-time employees and approximately 24 contract employers who take care of various operations. Most of the full-time employees of GHE have left their corporate jobs to lead this initiative. Global Himalayan Expedition is now a ‘Team story’ than an ‘individual one’. The team also trains local Electricians on DC solar microgrid technology so that there are enough trained electricians available to help these grids in future.
After electrifying Ladakh, the team plans to move to North East India and to other mountainous regions of the world. In 2018 Global Himalayan Expedition team wants to introduce wireless communication systems powered by the same microgrids to all the villages in Ladakh.