Sat, Oct 22, 2016 - Page 14 News List

In fume-choked Kochi, a solar rickshaw glides to the rescue

By K Rajendran  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, KOCHI, India

A worker loads gas cylinders onto his cycle-rickshaw in Kolkata in January 2013. An inventor in India has rolled out a solar rickshaw that backers say could have a positive impact on the environment.

Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The inventor of an innovative solar chick incubator, solar milking machine and solar-powered boat now has his newest item rolling onto the streets in this southern Indian city: A solar rickshaw taxi.

Georgekutty Kariyanappally, the founder of Lifeway Solar Devices Private, so far has just one prototype operating on the streets, but has supplied another 20 to a nearby tourist resort.

In a city where traffic fumes are a worsening problem, the solar rickshaw, Kariyanappally said, is a way of ensuring people don’t have to choose between effective transport and environmental protection.

Usually “you have to choose between development or the environment,” he said. “But I have an answer.”

Solar vehicles are not entirely new in Asia. Solar rickshaws are on the road in a number of countries, particularly Thailand; in Cambodia, a solar-adapted auto rickshaw has even become a mobile coffee cart. Earlier this year another Indian engineer drove a solar rickshaw he’d constructed from Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) to the UK.

But Kariyanappally, known in Kochi as “Solar Man,” has come up with his own version — just the latest creation in more than 14 years of work on renewable energy innovations, some of it backed financially by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.

The fledging solar rickshaw — a three-wheeled, five-seater motorised rickshaw with a solar panel on the roof — has gained a particular public following in Kochi since its launch in August because it is quiet and non-polluting.

‘BREATHING FRESH AIR’

In a country where more than half a billion people don’t own motorized vehicles and rely instead on hailing taxis — usually auto rickshaws — the invention could have a big impact on air quality, noise, health and climate change, backers say.

Altogether more than five million auto rickshaws — favored because they are cheap, ubiquitous and able to get through narrow lanes — ply India’s roads, according to the Indian Ministry of Surface Transport. Kochi has about 15,000, according to the road transport office in the city.

“It’s quite similar to an ordinary auto (rickshaw) journey except that I am breathing fresh air instead of polluted air. This gives me immense pleasure,” said Vijayakumari, who recently took a ride in Kariyanappally’s prototype.

The solar rickshaw can run up to 80km a day with six hours of charging, with the range extending to 120km on a sunny day, Kariyanappally said.

Solar rickshaws could potentially find a home in cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata, where their more polluting cousins have been banned, replaced with battery-operated electric rickshaws, backers say.

“Think how much carbon would be reduced if all the autos in the city were remodeled as solar autos,” Kariyanappally said. He noted that a switch to solar transport potentially could also net the country carbon credits.

COST FOR DRIVERS?

Some auto rickshaw drivers in Kochi say they’re interested in the solar models — but only if they’re affordable and improve incomes for drivers.

“Tell me in simple language how could it helpful in my daily life,” said Biji, one driver in Kochi, asked about whether he’d consider a solar vehicle.

Like most rickshaw drivers in Kochi, Biju doesn’t own his vehicle, but instead rents one for 12 hours a day for 250 rupees (US$3.75).

He spends another 250 rupees a day on diesel while driving his vehicle 80 to 100km, he said, and takes home about 500 rupees (US$7.50) a day for his work.

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