Asia-Pacific

Rickshaws going solar to fight pollution

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A group in India is working to reduce pollution by making auto-rickshaws, also known as tuk tuks, solar powered.

They’re cheap and convenient and millions of people across Asia use them daily to get around. 

But auto-rickshaws, or tuk tuks, are also choking the cities they serve, belching toxic fumes in their wake.

Now a group in India says it has developed the three-wheeler of the future, one that’s powered partly by the sun.

For three years, workers from RJMS have been tinkering away in a small workshop in the southern Indian city of Bangalore on a pollution revolution.

“There are many thousands of autos running on the road and polluting,” RJMS Director, Rakesh Sharma said. 

“If we want to be green we need to do something with renewable energy.”

The company has retrofitted nine existing auto-rickshaws with engines that run on batteries. They can be charged not only with electricity, but also with solar power.

The rickshaws appear the same as their ubiquitous forebears but with a solar panel for a roof and batteries in the spot that usually houses a combustion engine.

“This can increase the mileage from 25 to 30 per cent,” Mr Sharma said of the energy generated by the solar panel.

Over the past three months RJMS has run a pilot project testing the vehicles in Delhi, Nagpur and Bangalore. The company wants to have 800,000 on the road in the next five years.

But this kind of mass production will require a great deal of investment and political will. 

While India’s transport minister has applauded the initiative, no funds have yet been forthcoming.  

Government subsidies will be required if this is to succeed on a mass scale.  

RJMS says it costs almost $4000 to retrofit a single auto, which is well beyond the means of the average driver.

The company says the next phase of the project will involve building charging stations, ideally every three kilometres. 

Drivers will need to change their batteries after 110 kilometress.

Greenpeace India has welcomed the initiative.

“I travel in an auto every day to work and I know how awful it is to inhale the fumes,” Greenpeace spokeswoman, Vinuta Gopal said.

“If we are going to be able to convert our auto rickshaw to solar and electric I think that would make a huge difference.”

India is desperately seeking solutions to improve its air quality. 

The World Health Organisation figures show that 13 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in India.

Delhi wears the thorny crown of world’s most polluted city – worse, even, than Beijing.

Auto-rickshaws are only one part of a complex problem.

Dirty industries and other vehicles all contribute to air pollution.

In January, as a dangerous toxic smog enveloped Delhi, the city trialled what it called an odd/even scheme in attempt to bring pollution under control. 

Certain cars were allowed on the road on certain days according to their number plates.

The scheme helped reduce the peak toxicity levels in the city.

Ms Gopal said residents showed they were willing to be inconvenienced to improve air quality. 

Retrofitting the country’s rickshaw fleet would not be easy, but Ms Gopal said it could be done.

In some cities, auto drivers have already been forced to make the shift from diesel to the less polluting LPG.

Ms Gopal said, while many were initially resistant, the drivers didn’t lose money as they had feared.

“I think there can be a case made for a shift to electric and that might even be economically viable as long as you took a longer period of time into consideration,” Ms Gopal said. 

Electric rickshaws already operate in small numbers in some cities, including Delhi, but those who’ve tried solar have found it unreliable.

RJMS believes it may be able to break through that solar panelled ceiling.  

It plans to put solar panels on its charging stations and hopes that in the longer term its new age vehicles will run on 50 per cent solar.

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