Electrifying the Land of High Passes

Providing solar power for remote villages in the Himalayas

19 February 2018

As an active volunteer with IEEE Smart Village—a priority initiative of the IEEE Foundation that aspires to bring electricity to 50 million people in developing regions by 2025—I joined the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) in July to install solar microgrids in one of the most remote villages in Ladakh, India. Smart Village supports GHE, and other locally driven energy-education development groups around the world, financially and technically. With this support, ISV catalyzes global sustainable development through a multiprong strategy that electrifies rural communities, educates villagers, and empowers entrepreneurs.

On the first day of our trek, our team of volunteers from around the globe met GHE’s local program director, Tsering Dorjay, near the top of Shingo La pass. He led our team across the pass, at an altitude of 5,000 meters and covered in glaciers and freezing streams. As we walked down the mountainside, our hands began to thaw and the freezing rain turned to light mist. It took us four hours to reach a campsite for rest before continuing our trek for seven more hours on flat land, a total of 33 kilometers to reach the nearest village, Kargiak.

This began our 150-km journey to electrify the village of Shadé, one of the most remote in Ladakh, which is astutely referred to as “The Land of High Passes.”

MEASURING IMPACT

Since IEEE Smart Village first provided technical and financial support to GHE in 2012, GHE’s reach has expanded throughout Ladakh. The number of villages it has electrified has grown as well as the list of villages eagerly waiting their turn. The core team has also grown and evolved. Paras Loomba, the founder of GHE, has spread his contagious passion to others, including team leaders Jaideep Bansal and Gagan Singh. They are both engineers who bring technical experience and renewed motivation to the GHE mission.

Dorjay, a chef from the first village electrified by GHE, has joined the organization and now handles all local logistics including transportation, installation, maintenance, and repair. He surveys each village before GHE installs its microgrids to better understand villagers’ unique needs. He also creates a shared bank account for each village that’s used to pay for continued maintenance and repair. Each household pays 100 rupees (about US $1.50) per month.

Together, this core team at GHE has electrified 55 villages, reaching nearly 20,000 people in all corners of Ladakh. The GHE mission has expanded beyond electrification. GHE now builds education centers using local area network (LAN) technology and courses preloaded onto hard drives. It also helps villages establish homestays, connecting villagers to global markets through Airbnb. In addition, GHE encourages the production and sale of local handcrafts by connecting the artisans to global customers through a storefront in Leh.

Lingshed Monastery, which was electrified by IEEE Smart Village and GHE in 2016, has proven to be an enormous success. The community of 70 monks has collectively saved US $2,000 in a shared bank account. The monks now are investing 40 percent of their savings to purchase two computers, which they plan to use in the village’s community center to educate the locals.

LONG PATH TO SHADÉ

The freezing rain had finally passed, and the trek toward Shadé began with a brisk walk through green fields. We continued scaling steep slopes and crossing rope bridges that hang precariously over raging water. At the end of our most strenuous day of the trek, we arrived in Shadé just moments before dark. We were greeted at the village entrance, marked by a large stupa, a place for meditation, and led into a villager’s home, where we sat on small floor pads.

As we waited for food, our trekking guide Tashi Gyaltsan took two spare sticks and began a slow beat on a tin barrel, singing Himalayan folk songs in his native Ladakhi language.

After some time, the rice and dal arrived. We ate and then split into small groups to sleep in the kitchens of various village homes. The next morning, we awoke on sleeping pads and folded rugs to the soft sounds of chai being stirred on the kitchen stove and the now familiar smell of burning dung and wood.

We spent the next two days installing four microgrids to power 11 homes with more than 130 villagers, as well as a community center. Dorjay and his team of local electricians oversaw all aspects of installation.

After dinner on the second day, we gathered outside with the villagers. The electricians were spread throughout the village, waiting at each charge controller to turn on the grid. As the sun finished setting behind the surrounding mountains, Paras enthusiastically projected into his walkie-talkie for the electricians to flip the switch. And then there was light. A party with singing and dancing ensued. We left early the next morning back toward the long path that had first brought us to Shadé.

WELFARE AND GROWTH

Energy consumption is a means to an end: improved household welfare realized through rising income, access to education, and better health care. Though modest, the microgrids GHE and IEEE Smart Village installed in Ladakh serve to connect these populations, addressing some of their immediate wants and needs. This connection of distributed generation is just one of the initial steps needed to achieve universal access to modern energy. Other steps rely on access to clean cooking, heating, and transportation fuels. Yet with continued innovation, determination, sacrifice, and competence of the likes of Paras and Dorjay, and a proper mix of urgency and patience from the rest of us, the end will indeed justify the means.

IEEE Member Douglas Mackenzie is an electrical engineer at Black & Veatch and a volunteer with IEEE Smart Village. He is pursuing his master’s degree in economics at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Learn More