KOCHI (India) • 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.
Mr Georgekutty Kariyanappally, the founder of Lifeway Solar Devices, so far has 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, he said, is a way of ensuring people do not 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 had constructed from Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) to the United Kingdom.
But Mr 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.
In a country where more than half a billion people do not own motorised 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, the project's backers say.
More than five million auto rickshaws - favoured 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 Ms Vijayakumari, who recently took a ride in Mr 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, Mr 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 batteryoperated electric rickshaws, backers say.
"Think how much carbon would be reduced if all the autos in the city were remodelled as solar autos," Mr Kariyanappally said.
He noted that a switch to solar transport potentially could also net the country carbon credits.
Some auto rickshaw drivers in Kochi say they are interested in the solar models - but only if they are affordable and improve incomes for drivers.
"Tell me in simple language how it could be helpful in my daily life," said Mr Biji, one driver in Kochi, when asked whether he would consider a solar vehicle.
Like most rickshaw drivers in Kochi, he does not own his vehicle, but instead rents one for 12 hours a day for 250 rupees (S$5.20). He spends another 250 rupees a day on diesel while driving his vehicle 80 to 100km, he said, and earns 500 rupees a day.
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 from what the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute calls "severe" air pollution, even his five-year-old son is struggling with bronchitis, he said.
Mr Kariyanappally says solar rickshaws need not be more expensive. He believes his invention could be sold for 125,000 rupees, compared with about 200,000 to 250,000 rupees for a traditional new auto rickshaw.
Even with drivers saving US$3.75 (S$5.20) a day in fuel costs, that is 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, his invention faces a few barriers - including that his prototype vehicle is technically plying the streets illegally, as the Kerala Motor Vehicle Department has not yet recognised solar energy as a legal vehicle fuel.
"We are treating the solar auto service as a trial," said Mr 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 have attracted more interest: researchers, environmentalists and investors coming to Kochi to have a look, Mr Kariyanappally said.