22 Feb

Solar power in film-focus

By Dr Jamie Cross, School of Social and Political Science

I’m with a three-man film crew, driving in a taxi at high speed from the humid coastal plains of Visakhapatnam to the cool hills of Koraput in the highlands of southern Odisha.

We’re travelling to Koraput to make a short film about Urjaa Samadhan, a University of Edinburgh supported mobile phone platform for India’s off grid solar sector.

The road is busy and the journey is going to take us about six hours. From the back seat the film crew tell me stories about working on some of Bollywood’s biggest movies.

They have regular shoots with megastar Shah Rukh Khan, who received an honorary degree from Edinburgh earlier this year. Now they get to shoot me!

Photograph David Cheskin

As we speed through the countryside the cameraman deletes footage of actress Kareena Kapoor – filmed only yesterday morning in Mumbai – so that he can record me talking about the university’s work on energy in India.

“After a while, shooting Bollywood is boring”, he says. “That’s just breakfast, lunch and dinner. We never get to do things like this.”

For the past few days I’ve been in Delhi discussing opportunities for energy collaborations and partnerships. Approximately 300 million people in India live without mains electricity.  Increasing access to clean, reliable sources of energy has become a priority for the Government of India and its international partners.

Rural solar power in India is in it's infancy

Rural solar power in India is in it’s infancy


As Jaideep Mukherji, chief executive of the Rockefeller Foundation’s subsidiary Smart Power India, told me when I met him, “Reliable grid power is a mythical creature which has not yet visited most villages in India”. One alternative has been to harness the power of the sun to provide off grid electricity.

Places like Koraput, where I have been conducting research for the past three years, have been at the forefront of India’s much celebrated solar revolution. Yet the increased use of solar power in rural India is creating new challenges: most critically for repair and maintenance services.  As Jaideep Mukherji said, “It doesn’t matter where something is made. What matters that it has a local presence in terms of service”

Power lines are few and far between for many rural communities

Power lines are few and far between for many rural communities


This is exactly the issue that I have sought to address in the highlands of Odisha, in collaboration with the Edinburgh based social enterprise, Scene, and an Odisha based IT company, e-Kutir. Together we have built Urjaa Samadhan, a mobile phone platform that connects people with broken solar equipment with people who can fit and fix it.

We arrive in Koraput, exhausted. The Urjaa Samadhan platform is being piloted by a local solar company, Abha. I call the company’s founder, Prateek and arrange for him to meet us first thing in the morning.

We have two days to film. In the meantime, the film crew need food. We order chapatis and veg Akbar (named after the Emperor Akbar) to share in the back restaurant of our hotel.

We sit back and the film crew begin to tell me more stories about the dietary habits of Bollywood superstars.