Energy Woes Drive India to Innovate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In matters of bad air and blackouts, India has a good head start on California.

Indians have suffered chronic electricity shortages, and thickening smog, for so many years now that power cuts and pollution have joined death and taxes as the sad certainties of life.

When the need for electricity is heaviest--such as summer days, when the capital, New Delhi, can heat up to more than 115 degrees--the national power supply falls about 20% short of demand. It makes for some nasty scenes.

"The electricity shortage is so severe that if a dead body is put inside a crematorium and the electricity fails, the dead body will remain there for a long time, and this is very inhuman," said Madan Mohan Joshi, 61. "In Delhi, I have seen this happen myself."

India's energy crisis irked Joshi so much that the former air force commodore came out of retirement to join a group of energy conservation evangelists searching for eco-friendly solutions to India's worsening crisis.

One invention in the works is a crematorium that runs on smokeless gas produced from wood chips burned at intense heat, so that the dead can at least count on a clean exit.

Yet for all the awful things that Joshi has seen as India's power grid cracks under the strain, he was shocked to hear that California is facing the same problem. Perhaps, he politely offered, India might be of some help?

Joshi is the administrative chief of an eco-retreat in Gual Pahari, on the outskirts of New Delhi, that tests and teaches new ways to cut demand for conventional energy supplies.

It's the brainchild of Rajend Kumar Pachauri, who went to the U.S. to get a doctoral degree in economics, and another one in engineering, and returned to India as a guru of energy conservation in a country where it is rare to be this environmentally aware.

Pachauri, director-general of the nonprofit Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi, took a 90-acre stretch of rock-strewn scrub and turned it into a lush green showcase for sustainable development.

"There is a very small difference between being a fool and a courageous man--he is a courageous man," Joshi said, adding: "It is a challenge. This is what my teacher [Pachauri] said: 'Let us show the foreigners that as a poor country, we will do it.' "

The retreat's 30-room hostel and conference center has produced all of its own power since opening nearly a year ago. In a pond on the grounds, the roots of reeds clean sewage and other waste water--which, in just 11 hours, is safe enough for bathing, or irrigating the campus lawn.

Although no one has tried drinking the water yet, a little chlorine would make it potable, Joshi said.

The complex was completely Indian-made and designed except, Joshi said, for a tiny bit of German circuitry in the battery room where solar power is stored.

To stay free of New Delhi's wretched power grid, the retreat gets all of its energy from converted diesel generators and the sun. The generators run mainly on the clean-burning gas produced from wood chips that come from the campus' own three-acre "energy plantation" of fast-growing acacia trees.

Joshi is proudest of the way the center keeps its guests cool. Outside in June, a midday breeze feels like a blast from a giant hair dryer. An underground fan sucks the hot air into a tunnel about four yards beneath the campus' manicured lawn.

In the time the air travels the length of the tunnel, or about 75 yards, it cools from about 115 degrees to 82 degrees. The temperature drops a little more as the breeze passes through damp pads of cellulose or wood shavings--called air washers--before rising up into the guest rooms.

It isn't enough to turn a hot room air-conditioner chilly, but the effect is comfortable, without any of the ozone-depleting Freon that regular air conditioners here use, and with a tiny fraction of the power.

Still, Joshi and his team are eager to win converts, so they are now installing a few regular air conditioners to cool the breeze a few degrees more, especially when monsoon rains make the air so humid that it becomes a heat sponge.

The complex cost about $890,000 to build, or about 60% more than conventional buildings of the same size, Joshi said. The Indian-made solar panels are the most expensive component but will pay for themselves in free electricity within 10 years, he added.

In India, where dealing with breakdowns is a way of life, Joshi said people believe only in technology that they can see working, long after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies are forgotten.

His energy conservation retreat is not only still going strong but will soon expand into a scientists' village of 142 homes, where researchers will try to turn their experiments in clean living into a lifestyle.

Watson was recently on assignment in Gual Pahari.

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