So we did it – Phuktal Monastery is lit up by solar mini-grids!

Posted on Posted in Work in energy development

In the Himalayan Zanskar Valley, there is now light that shines upon the Tsarap River. The 2500-years old Phuktar Monastery has been electrified by the Global Himalayan Expedition team 2016. Yay!  The story on how we got to Phuktal can be found here.

We reached Phuktal after 7 days of driving, cycling and trekking
We reached Phuktal after 7 days of driving, cycling and trekking
Monks were waiting for us with Khata to tie it up around our necks
Monks were waiting for us with Khata to tie it up around our necks
José receiving Khata - a scarf for visitors in Phuktal monastery
José receiving Khata – a scarf for visitors in Phuktal monastery
Phuktal in times before lights (Credit: Padme)
Phuktal in times before lights (Credit: Padme)

Around 30 of us from all over the world (starting with Chile, USA, through few European countries, South Africa, Nepal, India to Australia) met on the morning of June 4th at the military airport in Leh, northern India to deliver light and electricity to the monastery in the Himalayas we’d heard so much about for over 2 months. About half of the group had no idea how to electrify anything, including me, but being a team we all learnt and contributed to the common goal.

Phuktal monstery is one of the remotest monasteries in the Himalayas, built on a steep hill. Actually it looks like someone has carved the monastery into a giant rock over a valley – it is still a mystery to me how did the monks built this place with so little equipment available 500 years ago.

Rooms of the monks above the Tsarap river
Rooms of the monks above the Tsarap river
This bridge near Phuktal is the only connection between the two river banks
This bridge near Phuktal is the only connection between the two river banks
Monks seated for a mid-day prayer in Phuktal
Monks seated for a mid-day prayer in Phuktal
Peeking down
Peeking down
In the hallways the only light was coming from the outside
In the hallways the only light was coming from the outside

Work begins

On June 11, we started our work, screwdrivers became a hot commodity and someone seemed to be stealing them from all over the place. I found one randomly, when I’d seen our paramedic cleaning his ears with it, so I assumed he wouldn’t miss it and I confiscated it.

Equipment check
Equipment check
Everything is ready to be brought up to and installed in Phuktal
Everything is ready to be brought up to and installed in Phuktal

Our teams worked hard in different corners of the monastery, banging the C-clippers into the walls that shattered with each bang and left us looking at the holes instead of a steady fixed cable, but we didn’t let ourselves discouraged and slowly, slowly managed to get all cables and lightbulb holders up, so they would stay in place for years to come. Maybe not 500 years, but hopefully long enough. The most amazing part of this was when the monks took the hammer from my hands and started to install the equipment themselves. First few times, it was not so perfect, but after that, they had done a better job than I did!

I learnt the practicalities of electrifying a place – maybe not enough to be able to electrify my own house (once I have it), but enough to understand the basics. Talks about converting AC to DC grid, cementing the solar panels on the rooftops, installing the streetlight in a grid or not so we could put up more lightbulbs up and ‘Who’s got the screwdriver?’ became normal even among the people with no background in energy or electricity. We had only a day and a half to install 7 mini-grids in the monastery, so we didn’t want to waste our time. It would’ve been a big disappointment for everyone involved, if we couldn’t finish on time.

250W solar panel is being set on one of the rooftops
250W solar panel is being set on one of the rooftops
'Where are we taking this panel?'
‘Where are we taking this panel?’
Installing a street light is a teamwork!
Installing a street light is a teamwork!
Some old cabling was already in place - that needed to be reviewed and included (or not) in the new system
Some old cabling was already in place – that needed to be reviewed and included (or not) in the new system

Let there be light!

In the afternoon of June 12, all the systems were up and ready to be checked by the electricians. I was there when they shouted: Grid One, 100%! That meant it works and some of the most important buildings in the life of the monks: prayer room, kitchen and eating space are being lit up. Now we only had to wait for the darkness to set so we could turn all the grids on and walk through the monastery in the light.

I was in the monastery mainly during the day, running up&down the steep stairs and I was wondering all the time what the life in darkness there must look like. With only a torchlight (if any) the monks are at risk of slipping, falling and missing a step. And I saw the little ones still running around the monastery like hurricanes! In the dark hallways you can easily hide, but also bump into someone else or into a wall. Or pee quickly before someone comes with a torchlight. All the talks in the West I’ve heard about how remote settlements need light and electricity are not capturing the real life in such a settlement. I wasn’t able to grasp all the benefits of having a light until I visited Phuktal.

All the rooms now have light
All the rooms now have light
There will now be more light in the kitchen
There will now be more light in the kitchen
An old monk who's lived in a room without a light for 60 years. There is no more darkness in his room!
An old monk who’s lived in a room without a light for 60 years. There is no more darkness in his room!

One of the beautiful moments was when the lights in the prayer room after the evening prayers went on and everyone was cheering up, monks were thanking us, praised our work and unity of our group. Everyone felt emotional, so we gladly sipped our milk tea as though we were avoiding to spoil the moment by unnecessary words.

Being a part of another prayer – the morning prayer – when the monks were praying for the longevity of the grid was an experience by itself. Sitting there with my eyes closed, listening to all different instruments that at first sounded very off but then they made sense, calmed me down. They truly cared for the grid that wasn’t yet in place but was soon to become part of their everyday’s lives. Those moments will be documented forever, thanks to the NDTV team who filmed it all (and our whole expedition) and who will be releasing the documentary on August 15, so stay tuned.

So long, Phuktal, I wish I could return one day. Thanks GHE for the opportunity and thanks to all the people I can now say are my friends!

A smile that stays after looking at the lightbulbs in Phuktal, knowing their value
A smile that stays after looking at the lightbulbs in Phuktal, knowing their value
One of the 250 new lights in the Phuktal monastery
One of the 250 new lights in the Phuktal monastery

Technical specifications of the installed system

  • 8 micro-grids installed, 7 micro-grids of 250W capacity each on the monastery’s premises and 1 microgrid of 100W capacity in the guesthouse
  • 7 micro-grids with each around 30 lightbulbs (3W, 320 lumens) and a streetlight (20W) – one grid has no streetlight, for which 3-4 more lightbulbs were installed
  • 100W micro-grid: 15 LED and 1 DC LED TV
  • 250W panel (30°-35° incline), 2 batteries in each grid (12V, 100A, led-acid) connected in series making it 24V system
  • 1100 Wh current max load on the system – potential left for a higher load if needed
  • Current cabling is set to carry 20A, right now is carries 4A – potential left for grid extension
  • Street light is positioned max 10 meters from the battery, battery is positioned max 10m from the charge controller
  • 1 DC HD LED TV operating on 12V with power consumption of 21W installed in the guest house
  • 4 USB DC Mobile charger installed, with DC input of 9-35V and DC output of 5V
  • 2 monks trained to operate & maintain the system
The view from Phuktal
The view from Phuktal

The recent interview with the GHE founder and very inspiring human being, Paras Loomba, about GHE can be found here. Thanks Paras for corrections provided for this post!

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