Lighting rural with off-grid power

India is one of the leading producers of electricity. In 2013, the country’s global share in electricity generation, surpassing Japan and Russia, stood at 4.8 percent. Yet, nearly 400 million Indians, residing in the country’s rural, have no access to electricity, writes Samiksha Jain.
Lighting rural with off-grid power

As the sun goes down, villagers light up paraffin lamps. In the dim light children study and mothers cook. But these kerosene lamps are also a source of carbon monoxide, capable to cause respiratory problems. Beyond the houses, the roads are usually empty, so are the market places, which otherwise is bustled with people during day time, as businesses shut early. India is one of the leading producers of electricity. In 2013, the country’s global share in electricity generation, surpassing Japan and Russia, stood at 4.8 percent. Yet, nearly 400 million Indians, residing in the country’s rural, have no access to electricity. The official figures say that 90 percent of villages are electrified, but the reality contradicts it.

“Having access to energy has multiple benefits, electric light at home enhances people’s confidence and they become much more socially active,” explains Krishnan Pallassana, Executive Director, The Climate Group, India. Climate Group provides a low carbon energy to rural, and it recently launched a project called ‘Bijli-Clean Energy for All’.

The solution is not to wait for more hydropower or nuclear plants, both controversial, to spring up across the corners of the country. It lies in the substitution of grid power with renewable source of energy, solar power.

Recently, the government announced that it will invest Rs. 3,000 crore in the National Clean Energy Fund. Of that, about Rs. 500 crore will be provided for development of four large-scale solar projects across the country. The projects are likely to achieve capacities between 2,000 MW and 4,000 MW when become fully functional. But that would still represent just one-eighth of India’s total installed power base, and the need demands more participation.

Motivated by this massive development, many have flocked to reap the benefits. “We have so far set up 8 micro grids in 4 States to provide energy access, and initiated agriculture related interventions in 2 States,” says Arun Nagpal, Co-Founder and Director of Mrida. “We have setup 8 micro grids so far in the States of Rajasthan (Abu Road), Uttarakhand (Almora), UP (Bareilly) and J&K (Leh/Ladakh).” He claims that Mrida came into being with objective of providing energy access to remote areas and hamlets not connected to the electricity grid.

“We deliver Bijli-Clean Energy for All programme by working with local delivery partners across three different off-grid electrification models (hand-held lights, home-lighting systems and micro-grids,” elaborates Pallassana.

Spanning across Maharashtra, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, the project identifies sustainable off-grid renewable energy business models and addresses the challenges of scaling up clean energy solutions to benefit large numbers of people by developing viable financial mechanisms.

"The initiative has now reached over 33,000 people in India, and is on its way to achieving its goal of connecting over 50,000 by the end of 2015,” informs Pallassana.

According to Pallassana, “People having access to solar energy have indicated improvement in their overall productivity, family health, particularly that of children, has improved considerably (they don’t have to burn kerosene anymore to keep rooms lit in the evenings), and many parents have reported that their wards are performing better in schools.”

Despite RBI’s stipulation for banks to open more branches in the villages, lack of electricity has hampered the projection. This sluggishness is understandable when 400,000 mobile-phone towers, installed in remote areas, are run on diesel generators, which are noisy, dirty and costly. It has been said that power only accounts for two-fifths of a mobile-phone company’s operating costs. On the agriculture productivity front, irrigation cannot be done effectively since farmers have to rely on diesel or petrol generators, and this makes them usually rely on the capricious monsoon.

The scenario calls for a much larger participation in the effort to source renewable form of energy in a larger scale to ensure that there is enough energy to electrify India’s rural. Gujarat has set a good example on this front by establishing itself as Asia’s largest solar park hub. Certificates of completion were issued in 2012 for a total of 605 MW, which included some sections that were already operational and 856.81 MW had been completed by March, 2013. The park is expected to save around 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere and save around 900,000 tonnes of natural gas per year.

Sporadic, yet rather significant, PPP projects have been successfully executed. But it remains to be seen how bigger this participation becomes in the near future. But solar energy expert are quite hopeful that with India’s 40 percent of houses in hinterland, the prospect the untapped market has in its disposal is enormous.

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