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Guiding Light: This Indian Village Could Show The Way To 1.5 Billion Who Lack Electricity

Maggie Sieger
March 16, 2018

When GE Global Research Center engineer Jayesh Barve arrived in Behlolpur, India, in February, he found children and adults from this remote village learning to read and write with the help of a new computer. The sight overwhelmed him. As recently as last fall, Behlolpur, located in Bihar province, had no electricity — much less computers. Villagers rose with the sun and lit candles or oil lamps at night, just like their ancestors centuries ago.

The village is only 40 kilometers as the crow flies from the nearest town, but it could be on another planet, technologywise. But things changed last summer, when Barve and his colleagues from GRC, GE Power and GE Licensing connected the homes in Behlolpur to a small microgrid they’d designed. The villagers are already rushing to catch up with the 21st century. “To see the difference from what it was to where they are now,” Barve trails off, his voice heavy with emotion. “I’m so proud of what we accomplished.”

Barve, lead engineer on the project, was part of a team from GE’s Global Research Center in Bangalore, India, which along with GE Power and GE Ventures Licensing deployed this hybrid distributed power system that uses a combination of solar and diesel battery technology to provide continuous, reliable power to the villagers. The station has a small solar farm connected to batteries to store extra power on a sunny day. A diesel generator can step in on an overcast day. The power sources are connected to an intelligent control box that monitors the energy flow and decides which one — solar, diesel or battery — is the best to use at any given moment.

The technology originally was developed for GE’s large wind and solar power installations. But the latest adaptation potentially can bring electricity to some of the 1.5 billion people around the world who don’t have it.

The team also installed its newly developed “mini field agent,” a highly secure gateway that streams real-time operational data from the remote plant to Predix, GE's app development platform for the Industrial Internet. It uses GE’s “digital twin” software, which monitors the condition and performance of the on-site equipment and helps optimize performance. “It enables the plant to send information to engineers, so that small issues can be spotted before they become expensive problems,” says Srinivas Kandasamy, research engineer at GRC India. The remote monitoring helps overcome challenges of scarcity of skilled resources for plant operations and maintenance in such remote locations.

Today in Behlolpur, each house has access to electricity through overhead power lines connected to the power station. The first light, connected in August, was just outside the control room of the station. Engineers then worked to connect each household.

The new computer, which is helping rid the village of illiteracy, is just the start of the changes that electricity has brought to Behlolpur. Barve says children are spending time doing schoolwork after dark, and playing games, and the villagers are constructing a women’s education center. Having power also means new commercial opportunities. Villagers are developing a rice-husking mill and installing irrigation for their crops.

Building the power plant presented a set of challenges. It takes four hours to reach the village from the nearest city, partially along unpaved roads. Then there’s the bridge across the mighty Ganges River right outside of the village. The river rises so fast and so high during the wet season, which starts in mid-June, that residents have to take down the only bridge across it every year.

Early in June, the GE team rushed to beat the rains to get the power plant components to the village. Each piece had to be taken by a small truck across the bridge, which is made of metal sheets and plastic barrels that are lashed together with metal chains for easy disassembly. “We had to beg them to keep the bridge up a few extra hours to get everything across,” says Kandasamy. But it was for naught. While one truck made it across the bridge, the last battery modules and accessory boxes had to be ferried across the river by wooden boat the day after the bridge was removed.

“In a country like India, where an estimated 300 million people still live without access to reliable electricity, this technology will help energy providers build community microgrids, overcoming the challenges of setting up transmission and distribution lines,” said Munesh Makhija, CEO of GE India Technology Centre and CTO of GE South Asia. “I am proud of how our Power, GRC and Licensing teams are bringing GE’s purpose to life!”

“I have worked on many projects over my 25-year career,” Barve says. “But this project was special. It was such a rare opportunity to see the real, life-changing impact of our technology.”

Until recently, residents in the remote Indian village Behlolpur completed their nightly tasks by candlelight or oil lamps. But starting in August, each house began receiving electricity through overhead power lines connected to the power station. Images credit: GE Power.