The country’s fishing industry is seeing mass adoption of solar tech, from innovative boat design to fisheries
It was a few years after the 2004 tsunami had struck. Fisherman and YouTuber M Sakthivel, 29, clearly remembers the day when the main street in his shanty in the coastal town of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, was lit up with five lamp posts powered by solar energy. “Until then, electricity was something we had only heard about. After sunset, all our work would be done with the help of kerosene lamps,” Sakthivel recalls.
Today, Sakthivel has become a champion of sorts for affordable domestic electrification projects that use solar energy panels. He has invested his earnings from his YouTube channel ThoothukudiMeenavan — which has more than seven lakh subscribers — to install nine domestic solar power units (costing between ₹15,000 to ₹60,000) in his colony and is looking forward to setting up some more in the coming weeks.
Boats be the boon
In Kochi, Kerala, boatbuilding companyNavAlt, in collaboration with Shell Foundation UK, has been experimenting with ideas for small solar fishing vessels. Having already tasted success with its Adityasolar-powered taxi ferries in Kerala, NavAlt is hoping to come up with boats that will provide a sustainable alternative to the current ones that run on petrol and kerosene guzzling outboard engines.
“A conventional three-foot fishing boat uses 3,600 litres of petrol or diesel when it is operated for five hours daily for 240 days in a year. With nearly two-and-a-half lakhboats in operation, approximately one million litres of fuel is consumed, leading to carbon dioxide emissions of two million tonnes per boat per year,” says NavAlt CEO SandithThandaserry.
“We are focussing on clusters of fishermen in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where at least four million people are engaged in short distance fishing. The inadequate size of the catch doesn’t justify the high operational costs of these boats. Solar power is among the best clean energy options for them,” he adds.
Solar energy projects have become a means of empowerment among rural and remote communities, especially those that have never been on the conventional electricity grid.
Statistics published by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy indicate that with about 300 sunny days in a year, India’s land area can be used to generate around 5,000 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually. According to International Energy Agency’s Renewables 2020 report, the country has the world’s fifth-largest installed solar power capacity, with 38 gigawatts (GW) in 2019, and productionof 54 TWhof electricity.
Removing fossil fuels from the picture is one of the ways to signal traditional professions like fishing to a more environment-friendly way of operation.
While a traditional ferry boat’s fuel costs come up to ₹30 lakh, for a solar boat, it is just less than ₹1 lakh per year.
“We want to see if we can achieve the same thing in the fishing sector. We are currently working on six models, (three each) of mono-hull and catamaran boats that are being tested out by fishermen in coastal districts. If they can be convinced about the initial higher cost of a solar boat that will eventually pay for itself after a few years, then we can hope to make our target price of under ₹10lakh,” elaborates Thandaserry.
The NavAlt prototypes use material like aluminium and glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) and have flexible solar panels for stability, an electrical steering unit, and twin outboard motors. The models also have assisted wind power devices for night use.
A modular battery design helps in both portability and shore charging.
Like most traditional professions, a fair amount of technology has crept into the fishing industry. Fishermen are more likely to use GPS and apps to find fishing spots rather than rely on old methods honed through years of experience and native wisdom. Despite its advantages, solar power has not been able to make much headway in small-scale fishing due to a variety of reasons, say industry figures.
“Marketing and educating the people about solar power needs funds. Fishermen are not using solar power in their boats. In fact, two fishermen removed thesolar panels from their boats when they modified their boat design,” explains Vincent Jain, deputy chief executive, South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS), based in Karamana,Thiruvananthapuram, that groups nearly 60,000 fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
“The wide availability of small oil-fuelled generators that cost only ₹25,000 compared to solar power panels worth over ₹2 lakh, has made many fishermen go for the cheaper option. It would be better to see solar energy as a supportive, rather than the main source of power on a boat,” adds Jain.
Companies need to make solar techproducts more economically feasible, especially if they want faster and greater adoption of small-scale fishing across Tier 2 and Tier 3 communities. “Having battery storage and getting charged by solar power adds a lot of value without having to run on petrol or diesel,” points out Rahul Kale, founder-CEO of Sunpower Renewables, an Australian developer of renewable energy solutions. The company’s handheld and grid-connected products are being used in fishing and leisure vessels in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.
Being compatible with the fishing technique is essential, says Kale. “In Indonesia, the units have been used in prawn fishing. When the fishermen go into the water, some of them have a small inbuilt torch or lamp. It is handy during nighttime, and is silent and eco-friendly, which is essential for prawn fishing,” he says.
While the company’s pre-pandemic presence in India was confined to the B2B segment in mining, hospitality and healthcare, Sunpower Renewables is now looking at B2C solutions in e-commerce and is marketing its products through online traders like Amazon and Croma.
Innovative technology has allowed solar energy products to be utilised well beyond daytime. “Traditional solar power products can only be used during the daytime, when sunlight is available, leaving backup to diesel-based generators of bulky battery inverters. But when you have the option to store solar power, such as in our products, they become very useful in multiple sectors,” comments Kale. “We are selling portable solar panels which shrink to the size ofa briefcase when you fold them. Ultimately, the product has to be customised to suit the users.”
For fisherman Sakthivel, who has replaced the traditional kaangan kerosene flame torch with a solar lamp when he goes out fishing, change is a constant that he chronicles through his YouTube channel as well.
“Earlier, we used to tear old clothes into strips because we were too poor to buy wicks for our kerosene lamps. Now, we just let solar lamps charge at home during daytime, and take them on our fishing voyages in the night. Many things, from the size of the catch, to the materials we use for nets, have changed since my forefathers started fishing; but solar energy has been a definite plus. I still get excited when I switch on the lights,” he laughs.
Read More:How India’s fishing industry could be powered by the sun