Nature has a solution for every problem. A petrol pump on the Assam-Nagaland border bears testimony to this. With frequent power cuts being the order of the day, operations were being affected at this pump as fuel dispensers need electricity to function. The owner of the pump decided to harness solar power to keep his business going. The move has turned his fortune around.
“Today, people can also tank up on fuel when there are power cuts in the area. My customers have increased threefold since 2016 (when he introduced solar power),” said Bijoy Sonowal, the dealer of an Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) pump in Nagabat village of Assam’s Titabor subdivision. The pump, Assam Oil, caters to about 500 motorists every day.
“Today, people can also tank up on fuel when there are power cuts in the area. My customers have increased threefold since 2016 (when he introduced solar power)” — Bijoy Sonowal, dealer of IOC petrol pump on Assam-Nagaland border
Nagabat means “the path of the Nagas” and the village is named after the dusty path the Nagas would take to come down from the hills to trade with the Assamese people and to cultivate rice. There are frequent land-related conflicts in the region between the Assamese and the Nagas.
Like other conflict-prone borders, this area too has seen minimal development. The Assam State Electricity Board’s power supply is erratic here. Sonowal said there is only one transformer of 16kV in the area, and there are power cuts for five-six hours every day. “We can’t operate a petrol pump if the customers have to wait for so long to get fuel,” he said. Switching on the diesel generator came with its own hassles and time lag.
Sonowal took his complaint to the IOC office Guwahati, and was advised to switch to solar energy. Finding it a viable solution, in February last year, Sonowal bought solar panels of 5kW capacity for Rs 5 lakh. The electricity they generate comfortably powers the four fuel dispensers, a water-pumping motor, two fans, four LED lights and the card-swiping machine at the pump. Sonowal said making the switch has doubled his sales. Now, his petrol pump sells more than 1,000 litres of petrol and about 3,000 litres of diesel every day, catering to people of both Assam and Nagaland.
In February last year, Sonowal bought solar panels of 5kW capacity for Rs 5 lakh. The electricity they generate comfortably powers the four fuel dispensers, a water-pumping motor, two fans, four LED lights and the card-swiping machine at the pump
Rabin Baruah, a regular customer at Assam Oil, said getting his car’s fuel tank filled up earlier used to be a headache. Because of power cuts and endless queues, he often wouldn’t be able to buy petrol for days, and was forced to commute to and from work by public transport. Now, he is happy with the pump’s service. “Now, at least I know that if I do not get petrol anywhere else, I will get it in Nagabat,” he says.
Apart from increased sales due to smooth operation of the pump, Sonowal is also saving the Rs 16,000-Rs 20,000 he used to pay towards monthly electricity bills. Using a diesel generator for backup meant an additional cost of Rs 20,000 a month. Now, he needs to use the generator only during the rainy season when the solar-charged batteries run out of charge. The generator cost has come down to about Rs 3,000 a month.
In the face of frequent power cuts, petrol pumps in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra started switching to solar energy about four years ago. The IOC, which owns 24,000 of the 50,000-odd petrol pumps in the country, had stated in 2015 that it would increase the number of solar-powered petrol pumps from 2,000 to 10,000 in the next two years.
According to the IOC’s estimate, one petrol pump switching to solar energy frees up enough electricity for about 60 houses in rural areas. Even cost-wise, solar energy works out to be cheaper. The solar power assembly is subsidised by the government and the monthly savings result in the dealer recovering the cost of the solar panels in a couple of years. Being commercial establishments, pumps attract high electricity tariff.
Now that solar power is becoming cheaper than coal-generated electricity, establishments have more reason than ever to opt for renewable energy. Sonowal is glad he did, and so are his customers.
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Syeda Ambia Zahan and Aamir Hazarika are both Assam-based freelance writers and member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.