It was an unusual ride for visitors attempting to reach the venue of Kerala Tourism Mart in Kochi. They were ferried to and fro from their hotel to the exhibition ground in a solar-powered autorickshaw.
For George Kutty Kariyanappally, founder, Chairman and Managing Director of Lifeway Solar and the man behind the solar rickshaw, it was just one more step on the sunny path he has been pursuing for 16 years. Visit his office in busy Kaloor area of Kochi and you can see many solar powered gadgets – from simple Solar LED lights to solar incubators for poultry to solar milking machines. He has even made a solar-powered boat.
Kariyanappally plunged into the renewable energy platform quite by accident in 1999. At that time, he was the general manager of Rashtra Deepika newspaper and was looking for gifts to give his agents. Even as he was finalising a mixie, somebody came to him with a solar lamp.
“I was quite struck by the lantern and bought 50 of them and distributed it along with the mixie,” he recounts. But a few months later, one of the beneficiaries turned up at his office and cribbed that the lantern was not working. Kariyanappally at once summoned the guy who had supplied the lantern, who pointed out that the lady instead of keeping just the panel in the sun was placing the whole lantern outside and had ruined the body. When the parts of the lantern were dissembled, the solar bug bit Kariyanappally, who began thinking about this alternative form of energy with interest.
Around the same time, one of his friends was going to Germany to attend a solar exhibition in Freiburg and he tagged along. Freiburg, the ecological capital of Germany which had schools, hospitals — veritably the whole city — running on solar energy, captured his imagination. “The trip convinced me that solar was not just a kahaani (story), but practisable,” he exclaims. He brought back evacuation tubes to start a solar water heating business in India.
But although he showed how effective it was, few were interested in the product. Over the next few years, Kariyanappally kept tinkering with ideas and coming up with many products but although everybody hailed them as innovative, commercial success eluded him.
Again, it was sheer accident that led to commercial success. Somebody with a poultry unit showed him an electric incubator and asked him if he could run it on solar energy as the power situation was so bleak.
“I never say no to a challenge,” said Kariyanappally, admitting that he was seeing an incubator for the first time. He bought an electric incubator, dismantled it and discovered that there was no rocket science to it. “It was just a heater and a motor. And it needed moisture – 38 degree centigrade heat and 50 per cent moisture. If that was maintained steadily for 25 days, the eggs would hatch. But the catch was that the eggs had to be tilted at regular intervals (every one hour two tilts) otherwise the chick that would be hatched would be ill-formed.
“I removed the Alternative Current (AC) and put a Direct Current (DC) motor that would be charged by solar energy,” he explains. A 12 v/ 40 watt solar photovoltaic panel is connected to the battery with a charge controller to ensure 24-hour supply. For the tilting part, he just installed a timer leaving it to be done manually by the poultry keeper.
Dame Luck was on his side as IIT Madras got interested in his project and asked him to send a prototype. A cash prize of ₹2.5 lakh for the innovation from IIT Madras spurred him to persist with it until, one fine day, an order for the product arrived from a Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Madhya Pradesh.
Arriving there, Kariyanappally found that the incubator had been requisitioned to hatch the endangered Kadaknath chicken, a fowl with black flesh and medicinal properties.
The Madhya Pradesh government had embarked on a scheme to save the fowl, giving eggs to BPL families, especially women.
In its pilot attempt, the incubator worked and all 40 eggs placed in it hatched. A buoyant bureaucracy in Jhabua at once placed an order for 50 more machines. Meanwhile, for Kariyanappally, orders had also started arriving from Andhra Pradesh.
After the incubator his next project was a solar cow milking machine, which posed huge challenges in terms of cost. It took a lot of running around, sourcing parts that were cheaper to get the costs down to sustainable levels. While the livestock and dairy innovations have made their mark, it’s the solar-powered rickshaw that has his phone ringing all day long these days.
“I have a peculiar mind – whenever I see something I am not happy with, I start thinking of solutions,” says Kariyanappally. In this case it was the pollution levels in Kochi that charged him up to think of a solar-powered transportation solution. As he says, “We will all be going around wearing oxygen masks if we don’t do anything about it.”
He sourced a battery-operated rickshaw from Jaipur and set to experimenting on how he could make it work on solar energy. The voltage setting had to be upgraded from 24 to 48 volts. The challenge in this case was the amount of sunlight required to charge the rickshaw. He realised that 24 amperes was not enough, and that only a 2 kilowatt solar power plant could fully charge the rickshaw. So Kariyanappally got 15 petrol stations in the city to install 2 kilo watt solar panels on their roofs. “Through an umbilical cord kind of wire attached to the panel, the rickshaws could be charged at a cost of Rs 50,” he says. Fully charged, the rickshaws can run for 80 km.
While a regular e-rickshaw costs Rs 1.50 lakh, the Lifeway Solar rickshaw costs Rs 1.75 lakh. Now the test lies in the adoption – will the drivers take to it?