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

New item rolling onto the streets

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

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 Ltd., 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 mo­tor­ized 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 80 kilo­me­ters a day with six hours of charg­ing, with the range ex­tend­ing to 120 kilo­me­ters 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 ($3.75). He spends an­other 250 ru­pees a day on diesel while driv­ing his ve­hi­cle 80 to 100 kilo­me­ters, he said, and takes home about 500 ru­pees ($7.50) a day for his work.

Ditch­ing diesel costs would be great, he said, but not if it means pay­ing a higher daily rent for a so­lar taxi. “I am ready to shift from a tra­di­tional auto to a so­lar one. But I should not have to pay more,” he said.

Still, he can see other ben­e­fits of making the switch. In a city suf­fer­ing what the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gi­neer­ing Re­search In­sti­tute calls “se­vere” air pol­lu­tion, even his own 5-yearold son is strug­gling with bron­chi­tis, he said.

Kariyanap­pally, the so­lar ve­hi­cle’s in­ven­tor, says so­lar rick­shaws need not be more ex­pen­sive. He be­lieves his in­ven­tion could be sold for 125,000 ru­pees (about $1,875), com­pared to about 200,000 to 250,000 for a tra­di­tional new auto rick­shaw.

Even with drivers sav­ing $3.75 a day in fuel costs, that’s still a steep upfront cost, but emerg­ing green poli­cies in In­dia could lead to the govern­ment pro­vid­ing cheaper loans or sub­si­dies for clean trans­port such as so­lar auto rick­shaws, he be­lieves.

For now, Kariyanap­pally’s in­ven­tion faces a few bar­ri­ers - in­clud­ing that his pro­to­type ve­hi­cle is tech­ni­cally on the streets il­le­gally, as the Ker­ala Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle De­part­ment has not yet recog­nised so­lar as a le­gal ve­hi­cle fuel. “We are treat­ing the so­lar auto ser­vice as a trial,” said Sadiq Ali, a Kochi road trans­port of­fi­cer.

Whether so­lar taxis will take hold in Kochi re­mains to be seen, res­i­dents say. But for now they’ve driven an­other in­no­va­tion: re­searchers, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and in­vestors com­ing to Kochi to have a look, Kariyanap­pally said.—Reuters

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