A global citizen’s journey: Dreaming of solar energy for all

Indian women display their small solar energy devices. Source: ensia.com/DFID

By Gaurav Visvanathan, Melton Fellow

(A version of this post appeared in Gaurav’s GoFundMe page, where he is raising funds to finish his Master’s education.)

In November of 2011, I was returning from class in Calcutta, India. I remember stopping at a tiny shop and buying a few things to eat. Right below the shop, I noticed some smoke coming out and when I bent down I noticed a lady, barely crouching, cooking food over a wood fired stove and coughing profusely because of the toxic fumes that she was inhaling. It was one of the saddest things I had ever seen, and witnessing this at such an impressionable age, it had a great impact on my life.

Coal & wood fired stoves being used in India

Researching further, I found that almost 140,000 Indian villages out of 586,000 did not have electricity. A staggering 625 million Indians do not have access to modern cooking fuels and use traditional fuels like biomass, causing severe health problems. Facing the brunt of this problem are women and children who bear this burden.

These numbers were astounding and made me think of what exactly we were achieving as an economy, if we cannot even provide basic services like electricity and health care to a major populace of our country.

As a Melton Fellow, I’ve been learning and working to find local solutions to global challenges. So, from this point on, I knew the path I wanted to take and knew I needed to help these people in need.

My motivation

Following this, I pursued my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering in Bangalore, India. During my course, I also volunteered for teaching underprivileged children for two years, worked on afforestation campaigns throughout Bangalore and worked with the Melton Foundation on a campaign towards a carbon-neutral Global Citizenship Conference.

Me at a recycling plant visit during the Melton Foundation’s Global Citizenship Conference

For my thesis, as I wanted to increase my reach and accomplish something tangible, I designed a solar refrigerator for storing vaccines in rural areas. As reported by the WHO, more than 60% of the vaccines get spoiled due to improper temperature conditions in rural areas and lack of electricity. To prevent this, my team and I successfully built a solar refrigerator that can prolong the life span of the vaccines.

Me testing the solar refrigerator in Bangalore

My Journey

Knowing that I wanted to pursue energy engineering, I found the one course I really really wanted. The course is a Joint European Masters in Management and Energy Engineering which selects only 30 students from around the world. There are 4 study tracks available and only 12 seats are available out of the 30 people who get selected for Option 1-A (Madrid, Nantes, Stockholm).

A picture of Royal Institute of Sweden (KTH)

I absolutely fell in love with the course: it offers a dual degree, one in Management and the other in Energy Engineering. The management courses which I undertook in Spain in 2015 gave me the necessary skills to come up with new fresh ideas for start-ups and the ability to manage a company. Starting from marketing to corporate strategy, the course was so well balanced that it provided me with the necessary base to go back to India and invest in my ideas to build a business and reach out to the people in rural areas.

A picture of me during my Spain Semester, loved every second of it

Secondly, I love the diversity this course has to offer. Not only in terms of my subjects, which range from waste water management to utilizing renewable energy, but also the intercultural exposure it brings with it. Studying with students from 17 different nationalities, looking at things from a whole new perspective and building strong relations gives you a new range of ideas that can be implemented in your own country.

As I continue to pursue my dream, I recently got an internship in Madrid at a research center called CIEMAT. I am working as a research intern on sustainability assessment and conducting a critical review on the available technologies and tools for looking at the social and economic pillars. This is helping me understand the impact of green technologies on various sectors and these tools are helping me gauge that level.

My dream

India is the world’s sixth largest electricity producer and consumer in the world; yet, it still has an electrification rate of only 44%. With the knowledge I will gain from my current course and a mixture of technical expertise, I intend to use these skills to design similar products such as the solar refrigerator to power homes via a new concept called micropower.

Micropower uses smaller power generating tools such as a micro-wind turbine and solar lights or LED’s that work on temperature difference in each and every house or a very close-by location to power homes. I will develop these products to help people in India, and I need your help to do it.

If you’d like to support Gaurav’s dream, you can contribute towards his education on his GoFundMe page.