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Solar may soon power Indian rickshaws

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Bill Radke: The streets of New Delhi, India, are heavily congested with cars, motorbikes, scooters
and tens of thousands of what they call rickshaws — they’re motorized, three-wheeled taxis. New Delhi was one of India’s first cities
to fuel its rickshaws with compressed natural gas to cut down on smog. Now, the city plans to go a step further. Raymond Thibodeaux has our story.

Raymond Thibodeaux: Most Indians use rickshaws like this one to commute to work and run errands. They’re basically three-wheel motorcycle taxis. Many of them run on compressed natural gas, part of a decade-old city-wide effort to cut down on smog by converting thousands of petrol-fueled rickshaws to cleaner burning fuels.

SAMIR BRAHMACHARI: I think the entrepreneurial spirit and the ability of the city to absorb new technology, you can see over the decade the city has really done remarkably.

Samir Brahmachari heads India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He says New Delhi is hoping to go one better with a rollout of solar-powered rickshaws by the end of the year.

In New Delhi’s Chadni Chowk area, solar-powered rickshaw prototypes ply the streets. Some are fully powered rickshaws with solar panels on their roofs. Others are solar-assisted bicycle rickshaws.

Pradeep Sarmah helped design them. He’s director for the Center for Rural Development.

PRADEEP SARMAH: All the time, it’s coming to my mind, “Can we go for a new design?”

Sarmah envisions a solar rickshaw industry that supports itself. Brahmachari does too. He says the rollout of solar rickshaws is the start of a “solar infrastructure” in India. That includes everything from solar panel makers to a vast network of solar charging stations where spent batteries are swapped for fresh ones.

BRAHMACHARI: Rickshaw is a great challenge. You will be surprised at how many hurdles you have to cross, from business model to logistics to public acceptance. This is where high science is required to really develop a low-cost solution that goes beyond rickshaws.

Brahmachari says he hopes to have at least a thousand solar rickshaws on the streets by year’s end. And, sure, that’s a drop in the ocean, but it’s an important step towards tackling another form of pollution that plagues many Indian cities: noise.

In New Delhi, I’m Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

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