|Tata for now: Bangalore's dusty Renewable Energy Park smacks of greenwash
||[Jun. 22nd, 2009|10:36 am]
Rainspotting in Bangalore
Alton Towers, EuroDisney, Bangalore Renewable Energy Park. It's the next big thing I tell you. Rallying my lungs, this weekend I stepped out of the smog-heavy city streets to join the ranks in this sustainable Arcadia. |
Yet far from a riot of organic candy floss and screams of pleasure, this theme park was strangely empty. Squinting at the map, I noticed some small text at at the bottom: executed by Tata BP Solar India PVT. LTD., Bangalore. Interesting.
[Cliff's Notes: the Tata Group dominate Indian business. A massive multinational conglomerate, they have over a hundred companies with interests in every major international market across the world, from hotels to technology to tea. Incidentally, one of these companies, Tata Steel, was the target of Greenpeace India's last major campaign.
In a typically panoptic move, Tata Motors recently hit the headlines for negotiating the "most audacious double-play the auto industry has seen in years" - acquiring the luxury brands of Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford whilst simultaneously gearing up to release the Tata Nano - the world's cheapest car to date, aimed specifically at the Indian market. Priced just over the equivalent of £1500 (a Nano can be yours to cruise around Bangalore for Rs. 131,028), the tiny car will be released in July this year and looks set to revolutionise the automobile industry - it's so cheap, everyone can have one. And that means a possible 65% expansion on India's already ram-packed roads, with the increased pollution levels and oil demands that come with it. Although one of the most fuel-efficient cars on the road, the Nano is currently only available with a petrol engine.
Alongside these oil-thirsty developments of Tata Motors is Tata BP Solar India, the Tata group's joint venture with BP Solar and one of the largest solar companies in Asia. Two years ago, the company set up a Renewable Energy Park in Bangalore to provide the public with 'energy education through entertainment and exhibits', surely an admirable venture at least worth a look in this 'ere blog. ]
The park contains twenty-one exhibits aimed at illustrating how renewable energy can be made applicable to everyday life, with a short description board explaining the basics of how each one works. The 'model home' on the site is made of bamboo - which we are helpfully informed is capable of withstanding nuclear radiation, presumably just in case the renewable-energy dream doesn't completely take off - and has a fridge, lights, ceiling fan, T.V, video and computer all running off electricity provided by the solar PV panels on the roof. Or at least, so says the literature. The house is locked up and shut down, and although the guard kindly lets me in and demonstrates the fridge wheezing to life, I don't notice him doing anything similar with the Indian visitors. Similarly, two child-sized solar-powered cars (above left) are out of order (something to do with the brakes I think, though this is relayed in Hindi and charades, and car mechanics have never been my strong point) which is a shame, as the place could have a lot of family appeal as a kind of carbon-free Legoland.
In the garden of the solar house is a solar-heated swimming pool (leading image), where a primary loop of water transfers heat from a solar collector to another loop of circulating, colder swimming-pool water. Demonstrating that renewable energy can easily make typically luxury stuff feasible is a lovely idea, but the water is so filthy through lack of maintenance that I doubt anyone would even be willing to test the temperature.
What few visitors the park has are concentrated in the playground, a cunning combination of standard, un-useful climbing frames and swings interspersed with energy-generating, fun-but-also-useful playing apparatus. The 'Energy Generating Drum' (right) is a kind of human hamster wheel that 'demonstrates the production of electrical energy from muscle power through a joy ride', which essentially means you run, and some LEDs light up in front of you. The idea of generating power through children's play is a charming one though (carefully steering round images of Dickensian workhouses), and already being used by One Water in their PlayPump projects, which use the motion of children's roundabouts to pump clean drinking water to communities in Africa. The playground here also has a slide made of a downward-sloping conveyor belt (left): instead of sliding over a metal surface as on a normal slide, the child's weight causes the conveyor belt to deliver them downward, driving a dynamo and generating electricity at the same time.
Solar-powered cookers: This is one area of renewables that is genuinely and immediately applicable to many areas of society, particularly in such sunlight-rich areas of the world as India, and the park displays some good examples. Solar cookers are not only affordable in terms of carbon-debt and finance, but also in the time they save the women and children of remote communities , who usually spend many hours a day gathering firewood.
Parabolic Solar Cooker: a mirrored dish in the shape of, surprisingly, a parabola. Angled at about 45 degrees and faced towards the sun, the dish reflects the sun's rays towards a suspended pan in the centre, cooking 'everything from roast chapatis to boiled eggs'. Approximately a metre and a half in diameter, this cooker operated at 600W, which is about half the power of an electric hob from John Lewis.
Box Type Solar Cooker: a lockable, portable (if you're muscly) box that uses a mirrored lid to reflect sunlight onto a black metallic surface, insulating the heat and trapping it beneath a double glass lid. Metallic pans placed on the dark surface conduct this heat to any food contained therein: rice, lentils and vegetables can be cooked in just under two hours.
Community Parabolic Solar Cooker (right): The clue's in the name: this ten square metre basin would dwarf even the most obnoxious of satellite dishes. The colossal primary reflector concentrates sunlight onto a smaller, secondary reflector placed under the stove in your kitchen, which in turn deflects it up and onto the bottom of your frying pan. Advantages are that you can cook for 40-50 persons daily at temperatures of up to 450 degrees, while the parabola niftily tracks the sun's movement throughout the day. While a personal dinner party on this scale may sound like the stuff of nightmares, the idea of feeding a community completely independent of fuel pricing and availability, not to mention carbon emissions, is one that is sorely needed in developing countries such as India, equatorially positioned and with over a billion mouths to feed daily.
Transport: Society's energy needs can be loosely divided into three: electricity, heat, and transport, and the park displays both the solar and battery-operated options of the latter. At least it says it does. The battery-powered bicycle is nowhere to be seen (nicked, probably) and I spy the battery-powered passenger bus loitering in some bushes down by the toilets. The battery-operated car is here though, custard-yellow and snugly locked under its awning. A nippy little four-seater, it ironically doesn't look too different from the Tata Nano, minus of course the noxious CO2, N2O and CH4 emissions but plus a couple of hundred thousand Rupees and the problem of finding an recharging socket in the middle of Bangalore rush-hour. It's also one of the few things not made by Tata - an unusual gap in their all-encompassing marketing.
As the jangled notes of a Bollywood ringtone float across the humid, empty park, it seems sadly apparent that the reasons for the failure of the renewable energy measures displayed here are not dissimilar to the reasons for their worryingly slow implementation in the real world. The technologies are ready, and the consumer interest is there, but so long as our policies continue to be more half-hearted gestures of appeasement than real commitments to the promotion and implementation of sustainable energy solutions, our chances of escaping from our giant Pleasure Island look about as bleak as Bangalore's Renewable Energy Park.