What to Make of this Curious Headline from India: Solar Microgrid Not ‘Real’ Electricity?

Aug. 7, 2014
Does the Dharnai solar microgrid represent a way out of poverty for the northern India village? Or does it offer false hope?

Credit: Manoj nav

I was struck this week by a curious headline about a new solar microgrid in India, ‘Bihar village rejects solar-powered microgrid and demands ‘real’ electricity.’

The India Today article tells the story of Dharnai, “a non-descript village tucked away in the Naxal heartland of Bihar.” The village recently gained electricity for the first time in 33 years thanks to a 100-kW solar microgrid brought by Greenpeace India.

But apparently not all of the villagers are happy with the microgrid.

“Village youngsters” greeted a visiting dignitary with placards that said: “We do not want artificial energy, give us the real one,” said the article.

It is not clear from the article why the protesters considered the solar microgrid artificial energy; nor is it clear how they they define real energy. But the article implied that they wanted their village to be connected to the main grid, as it had been more than 30 years earlier before a transformer burned and cables were carted away.

Clearly, the protesters view microgrids very differently than do Americans. Here a microgrid is a premium product, likely to be employed by research universities, data centers and others seeking high quality, reliable power.  These microgrids are very much  ‘real’ electricity in that they reduce the threat of outages.  “I see ourselves as at risk anytime we are on the grid because we are more reliable than them,” said Juan Ontiveros, who runs the microgrid at the University of Texas at Austin, when he was recently interviewed by MicrogridKnowledge.com.  His statement encapsulated the growing appreciation of microgrids in the United States, especially since Superstorm Sandy.

But in Dharnai, the  microgrid is viewed as a lesser product. Why?

When I tweeted my bewilderment about the Dharnai headline, I received a link to an interesting analysis that may shed some light. In Making Energy Access Meaningful, authors Morgan Bazlian and Roger Pielke argue that our efforts to electrify energy poor regions are too meager to make an economic dent. They wrote:

“…achiev­ing minimal levels of energy access is not to be confused with success in achieving goals of modern energy ac­cess. The sorts of policies that would make sense to get large numbers of people over a low and arbitrary thresh­old are very different from those that will underpin sus­tained growth in economies and consumption. Consider that we do not label people who live on more than $1 per day as having “economic access” and address policies toward achieving a $1.25 level, thus still leaving them desperately poor. Everyone understands that $1.25 a day is still not nearly enough. In energy, we often lack such conceptual clarity…”

Is that what Dharnai’s protesters mean when they call for real energy? Are they arguing that the solar microgrid, while nice, won’t really change their economic prospects?

For its part, Greenpeace India has a lot of good things to say about Dharnai’s solar microgrid. It certainly sounds game changing – the microgrid, which includes battery storage for 24/7  power, will light up 50 shops, a bank, a school, a health facility, a training center,  several agricultural water pumps, 60 street lights, and 450 households reaching 2,200 people.

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Greenpeace volunteer Avik Roy tells a story in a blog about  Suresh Manjhi, who will no longer have to travel more than three miles from Dharnai  just to charge his cell phone or pay for expensive kerosene to see at night. Roy also quoted Dharnai resident Ranti Devi as saying, “We had a lot of problems in the past, but since the lights have been installed in our homes, it has become easier for us to cook and for our children to study. We can walk around in the streets at night without any fear.”

So what is the real story? Does the Dharnai microgrid represent a way out of poverty or false hope? I ask sincerely; I do not know and very much look forward to your comments on what microgrids mean to poor rural communities. Please speak up, especially our readers from northern India, as well as American microgrid developers who do business there.  Your insight is needed.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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