- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

BYLAKUPPE, India As the sun sinks behind the Coorg hills and darkness creeps over the region's villages, students at one school do something unusual for much of rural India: They turn on the lights.
The students cluster in groups of 30 or so at the Tibetan SOS Children's Village School to study under the glow of fluorescent tubes powered by solar energy collectors.
Before the system was installed in June, the availability of light was a nightly question because of the frequent failures of the electricity grid.
"Children would just then sit down to read, and the lights would go off," said Ngodup Wangdu, a school administrator.
So the school installed about 300 light bulbs powered by batteries that are charged by the sun during the day. The response has been dazzling.
"We can study without interruption, thanks to the new solar lights," said Yeshi Choedon, 15, daughter of Tibetan refugees. The benefits go beyond studying, she added: "Lights have been put into our bathrooms, and now we're not afraid of the dark anymore."
Bylakuppe, about 135 miles from Bangalore, India's technology hub, is not alone in turning to the sun for help.
While India's cities face regular electric troubles some 235 million people were plunged into darkness recently when a whole region's electrical grid failed utilities pay even less attention to rural electricity needs.
Some 80,000 villages have never been electrified at all, and hundreds of thousands of others get only irregular service on the best of days.
Now thousands of villages are getting solar-powered systems with help from the Indian government and international donors. The U.S. Export-Import Bank alone has earmarked $500 million to finance nonpolluting power projects in India.
Solar power is the kind of alternative energy source that will be encouraged at the United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development, which begins today in Johannesburg.
"The demand for solar energy-driven products is increasing faster in the villages than in the cities, mainly because villagers have no other choice," said Thomas J. Pullenkav, general manager of Selco India, which installed the solar system in Bylakuppe.
Mr. Pullenkav said his customers' demands are simple. "Most villagers want a couple of electric bulbs in their small homes. In due course, they might want to add a black-and-white television. That is all," he said.
The 7-year-old company says it has installed 17,000 solar-powered systems, almost all in rural areas.
"India is far ahead of other developing countries in adoption of solar energy," said E.V.R. Sastry, an adviser on solar power to the Indian government.
The country is well-suited to solar-power systems because it averages 300 sunny days a year, according to Winrock International India, a nonprofit group that studies alternative power. The entire solar energy received during those days, if it could be captured, would be equal to 5 trillion megawatts far more than India's total annual energy consumption, the organization says.
Winrock says about 800,000 solar systems now generate a total of 65 megawatts of electricity in India. In addition, there are 360,000 lanterns, 160,000 home-lighting systems and 43,000 streetlights powered by the sun, and Indians use 597,000 solar stoves, saving millions of cylinders worth of gas.

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