In 2016, Mumbai-born engineer Sushil Reddy set off around India on a solar-powered electric bike. His aim: to raise awareness of solar power and the pressing need for society to shift to more sustainable sources of energy.
His maiden journey took him on a nine-state, 7,500km circumnavigation of his home country. On the way he met thousands of people – villagers, farmers, motorists, businesses – and engaged them in conversations about solar energy and its many benefits. He even earned himself a Guinness World Record for the longest journey on a solar-powered electric bike.
Since his first epic ‘SunPedal Ride’ voyage, Sushil has been on several more adventures on his e-bike, including in the USA, France and, in 2018, Iceland. Adventure Uncovered caught up with Sushil in early 2019, fresh from completing a 15-day ride in the city of Bengaluru, southern India.
Adventure Uncovered: What was the original thinking behind the SunPedal Ride?
Sushil Reddy: After graduating I worked in a solar energy company installing solar rooftop plants in Mumbai and some parts of south and north India as well.
Whilst working in this sector, I realised that there’s a lack of awareness about solar energy, and how it is beneficial to people. Not only how it is beneficial to them on the technical side, but also the business and economic side of it, because there’s a misconception among people that solar is very expensive due to its upfront cost. But it does give back over the long term.
This lack of awareness of basic facts about solar energy in India prompted me to start a cause in India to raise awareness about solar energy. The idea was to go on a tour across the sunniest states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Initially the plan was to go in a car or in a bus with a group of people and host seminars and workshops across universities or villages, towns and talk to people on the road and tell them about what solar energy is.
And then we decided to make it interesting and added the solar powered electric bike, because the idea was to raise awareness about solar energy, which is a more sustainable form of energy. So we thought, if you’re doing such a cause, let’s do it in a sustainable way, not in a bus or car which is obviously using fuel from coal or other resources.
We thought biking would be the most sustainable form of transportation. And then we had the idea to use an e-bike and thought of charging the battery using solar energy, since the cause was to promote solar power.
When we spoke to you before, you’d just completed your first ride around India. What’s been happening since then?
I recently completed my 15-day ride on the solar-powered electric bicycle in the city of Bengaluru in the southern part of India. The aim of this ride was to visit schools and corporate organisations in the city to raise awareness about clean energy, electric mobility and clean air. The ride ended in the Intersolar India exhibition and conference where I got to meet and interact with solar industry professionals to discuss possible collaborative efforts with the SunPedal Ride initiative. I got an opportunity to discuss further at the World Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi recently about possibilities of collaboration with The Energy Resource Institute for outreach and awareness activities. I am currently in Mumbai finishing my Masters thesis to complete my Masters degree in Sustainability at HEC Paris.
One of your highlights of recent months was your ride around Iceland. Tell us more about this.
The journey in Iceland was connected to the CHARGE Energy Branding Conference in Reykjavik. The organiser of this conference, Dr. Fridrik Larsen, helped me to plan the entire ride schedule along with IKEA, who provided the solar panel and the electric bicycle for the journey. There was a support vehicle – an Electric Vehicle Volkswagon e-Golf – for safety. My friend, Luis Fourzan, was driving the support vehicle. The entire journey took us 12 days and more than 1,300 kilometres in total along Route 1. We started from Reykjavik and headed north. There were a few sections of the route where we had to remove the solar panel trailer due to bad weather and safety. The wind was fierce and cold. For me, it was quite a challenge to ride in such weather conditions, especially coming from the warmer part of India. The temperature was a little more than 7-8 degrees Celsius and the sunlight lasted for less than four hours everyday, which was not enough for the battery to charge completely everyday, so I had to use much more of my physical effort to cover the distance which was planned everyday. The scenery was amazing! Glaciers and volcanoes co-existing in a surreal landscape. It was an incredible experience to be in Iceland.
Now that you have been on several SunPedal rides, what do you feel you have achieved in terms of the wider objectives of your adventures – namely, in raising awareness of the need to transition to cleaner forms of energy?
I think it is a long way to go to achieve the scale of awareness. The SunPedal Ride has enabled me to connect with a lot of like-minded people and plan to multiply efforts to increase awareness and outreach. India is a vast and diverse country which is at the cusp of the clean energy revolution. Bicycle is one of the ways to connect with people in India and spread awareness, which is how the idea of The SunPedal Ride began. There are a lot of collaborative efforts being planned around this initiative like inter-university competitions, ecotourism and workshops for students towards skill development in this sector of clean energy outreach. Partnerships, both nationally and internationally, are a key to make this nascent initiative into a bigger scale.
Generally speaking, how well do you think society is doing in making this transition to clean energy – particularly where transportation is concerned?
I think it is more about the mindset shift towards sustainability that will drive the adoption of clean energy and efficient mobility solutions among the citizens. There are technologies available in the market but the scale of adoption is not yet there. Talking about India specifically, people are very cost-conscious. As more and more people start to adopt and see the merits of the clean energy technologies, the economies of scale will ensure an exponential growth of adoption. Collaborative efforts and public-private partnerships are key to learn and share knowledge among the stakeholders to have smart cities with shared and electric mobility with reduced ownership of vehicles.
Looking ahead, what plans do you have for future SunPedal rides? Can we expect to see you heading off again soon for more adventures?
South America, Africa and Australia are definitely on my horizon but no concrete plans yet. I would love to do a ride in the UK too! As of now, I am planning regional rides and awareness events in India instead of a long journey and the focus is more about reaching out to people instead of going on a long journey. The SunPedal Ride will continue to prove to the masses that sustainable mobility is possible and practical today and the fact that it is now more than ever, that we all need to shift our lifestyle towards sustainability.
To find out more about Sushil’s SunPedal rides, go here.