Students help bring sustainable electricity to Indian villages and slums

16 October 2013
By Sue Weekes
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Chloe and Adam conducting surveys in the RKSS centre in the second largest slum in Mumbai.

Chloe and Adam conducting surveys in the RKSS centre in the second largest slum in Mumbai.

University of Bristol students Chloe Tingle and Adam Smith travelled to India to look into ways for slum dwellers and those living in remote villages to improve their lives by generating their own power.

The chance to spend time in a country as diverse as India over the summer break is one that is welcomed with open arms by any student with a spirit of adventure. For University of Bristol students Chloe Tingle and Adam Smith though, this was no typical student trip abroad.

While there is no doubt that they immersed themselves in the culture, it certainly wasn't in the usual way and there was little time for relaxing, enjoying the scenery and flopping on a beach. When they weren't meeting with different biogas, biomass and solar companies and suppliers, they were surveying local people to gain better insight into their lifestyles and how their quality of life could be improved.

Fact-finding mission

The pair travelled to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu on a fact-finding mission as part of a pioneering sustainable electricity project, led by the Bristol-based charity The Converging World (TCW). Tingle, who is in the final year of a master's degree in engineering design, explains that the trip proved to be a great learning experience in more ways than one.

"Our achievements and learning must be split into two sections: what we gained personally from the trip and what was achieved from the project's point of view," she says. "Our project management and co-ordination have improved no end. And we learned to multi-task and work well together as a team of two, especially when one of our laptops broke. We also learned a lot about Indian culture and the contrasts between urban and rural life.”

Wind farms

A quarter of India has no electricity and those living in large areas of Tamil Nadu have to cope with intermittent electricity or no energy supply at all. TCW has installed wind farms in the area and ploughs the profits into helping people who live in energy poverty.

Tingle found out about the work of the charity through her involvement in the Bristol branch of Engineers without Borders (EWB), a student-run organisation that seeks to remove barriers to development through engineering.

She began volunteering with TCW last year and is joint programme manager for its Access to Affordable Sustainable Energy programme. The role involves researching different renewable energy technologies appropriate for use in rural India. Smith, who completed his master’s in physics this year and shares Tingle's passion for renewable energy, is part of the same team.   

Tingle had planned to do a placement with an engineering firm over the summer but then found out about the university's ethical internship scheme where the university provides the charity with a grant so a student can be paid to work full-time for around six weeks. She and Adam applied and, following discussions with TCW CEO Wendy Stephenson, it was decided the project would benefit from the students visiting the area.

A self-funded trip

"As well as getting information from the people we are trying to help, it would build a foundation for the project to progress next year,” says Tingle, who with Smith set about raising £2,500 to self-fund the trip. "At TCW we are focused on sustainability," comments Smith. "So it's important we don’t go straight in and install energy systems that no-one understands how to use or maintain, that will be forgotten after a couple of years.”

They began by visiting a slum in Mumbai where a solar energy project is underway at a local community centre and Smith and Tingle held workshops to educate people in the importance of renewable energy. Next they travelled to the villages of Kalilaspura and Muthumakamura, which are close to the wind turbines installed by TCW. Here they assessed the energy needs and lifestyles of the local people.

"Communication was at times the most difficult part of the trip,” explains Tingle. “Although many people speak English incredibly well, there can be miscommunication and confusion because of the differences in culture. Learning to express ourselves clearly and not get frustrated by this was a challenge. We learnt that working with translators can be difficult but very rewarding."

Continuing their work

On their return, Tingle and Smith analysed the data they had collected and wrote up reports on the trip. Their research will be used to recommend what type of technology would be most appropriate and which suppliers in India could best help with this.

Smith is now searching for a job in the UK renewable energy sector while Tingle is completing her fifth and final year. She hopes to stay involved in the project and then hand it over to someone who can implement it. "I would really love to stay involved and see our work turn into something physical that can help the lives of all the wonderful people we met and interviewed," she says.  She hopes to undertake further charity and development work once she has completed her studies, ideally in South America, and once again on a renewable energy or a water engineering project.

FRANK Water

One of the other projects she is involved with at EWB is a partnership with the charity FRANK Water, focusing on sustainable water purification technologies. "We have lots of projects running at the moment," she says. "We are constructing our own wind turbine, we ran a project to build a wooden bike and run outreach courses with school children teaching them about development engineering."   

Focusing back on her own career, she says that her extra-curricular work has definitely shaped her future direction. "This trip has shown me that I definitely want to work in engineering development and I will do whatever it takes to get my dream job working as an engineer in the third sector."  

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