In Rural India, Solar Microgrids Show Mixed Success

Jan. 18, 2016
As India looks to bring electricity to the quarter of its population still without it, nonprofit groups are increasingly turning to solar microgrids to provide power to the nation’s villages.

As India looks to bring electricity to the quarter of its population still without it, nonprofit groups are increasingly turning to solar microgrids to provide power to the nation’s villages. But the initiatives so far have faced major challenges, as described here by Fred Pearce, a contributing writer for Yale Environment 360, where this article orginated.

Elephants are not the most obvious motivation for the solar energy revolution. But in the Kandhara forest reserve in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, that’s part of the story the people tell.

Standing outside his mud hut, illuminated by a solar-powered light bulb dangling from the straw roof, the president of Rajanga village’s energy committee, Suresh Pradhan, described the best thing about having this new source of light. His children could play outside in the evening, he said. And his wife could carry on sewing. But being free of elephants was the biggest gain. “They used to come into our village at night. We were in fear, especially my children, and they did damage. Now there is light, they don’t come.”

Whatever the reasons, almost everyone in the world wants electricity. And it is increasingly seen as ranking beside clean water and safe sanitation as a human right.

The recently agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals say that ways have to be found for everyone to have access to electricity. India is in the front line. With more than 300 million mostly rural Indians still waiting for power, it is home to one in four of the world’s off-grid people, more than any other nation.

Small solar energy systems, such as the local microgrid that has brought street lights and helped keep the elephants away from Rajanga, look increasingly like the route to bringing power to India’s villages. At the Paris climate negotiations in December, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his nation’s plans to generate 40 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030. The first stage will be to install 100 GW of solar power in the next five years, as part of an effort to connect the country’s remaining 18,500 dark villages in time for the next Indian general election in 2019.

India’s grid is growing. But even where it has arrived, many do not benefit, says Debajit Palit, rural energy chief at The Energy and Resources Initiative (TERI), an NGO based in New Delhi. Tens of thousands of supposedly connected villages have slum quarters inhabited by lower castes, tribal groups, and other minorities that remain cut off, he says.

In Kandhara forest, and many other places in India, Palit believes the only real prospect of getting electricity any time soon will be through constructing stand-alone solar-powered microgrids, where a central bank of photovoltaic cells is linked by cable to a few dozen homes and local enterprises. And this is true not just in India. Solar microgrids are rapidly expanding in much of the tropics, particularly in Africa. They look to many like the best way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people worldwide without it.

Yet there is staggeringly little information on the current extent or rate of growth of microgrids, particularly in developing countries. The International Energy Agency, the most authoritative source of global energy data, says that worldwide “70 percent of the rural areas that currently lack access will need to be connected using mini-grids.” But the agency says it has no idea how many people are connected to microgrids right now.
So how can the world best achieve the rapid scale-up of microgrids required to light the world’s dark places? In Kenya last fall, I reported for Yale Environment 360 on how private entrepreneurs are solving the complex problems of collecting revenues from poor and remote communities by using mobile phone-style, top-up credit linked to village smart meters. The meters cut off power when the credit runs out. The system is brutally effective, and the certainty of payment encourages investors.

India also has private entrepreneurs investing in village microgrids. They include Mera Gao Power in Uttar Pradesh and the Mlinda Foundation in West Bengal. But there are problems for private investors because, in such a densely populated country, the grid is rarely far away, and grid power is heavily subsidized by the government. In fact, it is often free of charge. This makes it hard for investors to be sure of a return. “The arrival of the grid could at any time undermine a private-sector microgrid project,” says Palit.

As a result, most Indian solar microgrids are run by local NGOs, often reliant on foreign aid. They are democratic and egalitarian, with power controlled by village committees: Every household has a connection, and even people who fail to pay their bills rarely get cut off. But this can mean that there is no money to upgrade systems or replace batteries when needed.

Without private investors, expansion is slower, but such NGO funding may get microgrids to places that could not be reached any other way. Places like Rajanga, one of five villages in the Kandhara forest that got microgrids last year, thanks to TERI and IRADA, a local development NGO.

The villagers were deliberately chosen as a hard case. Rajanga is only three hours drive from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, and less than 10 kilometers from the nearest main road, local government offices, and market. But its 550 inhabitants are surprisingly cut off, with no tarred road, no power grid, no water supply mains, no shops, no lodging houses or cafes, and only an intermittent and patchy mobile phone signal.

Because the forest is a protected reserve, they are banned from gathering firewood, bamboo, or other products from the forest around them. And because it is on an elephant migration route, the authorities won’t allow roads or power cables in the forest.

They live largely on the rice and organic vegetables like brinjals (eggplants) and red chilies that grow in their fields, and the goats and chickens that scrabble around their yards.In a booklet on its work in the villages, IRADA somewhat brutally summarizes the problems of the villagers as “poverty, ignorance, and alcoholism.” If microgrids can work here, the NGO reasons, they can work almost anywhere.

The villagers love the power. In Kanaka village, Ramesh Chandra Pradan shyly ushered me into his single-room home to see his light bulb. “We had a kerosene lamp before, but this is exciting and cheaper,” he said. Pride of

We had a kerosene lamp before, but this is exciting and cheaper,’ one villager says.

place in the room went to a treadle sewing machine that his wife can now work in the evenings, making and mending clothes.

Other women said they now spent their evenings weaving date-palm leaves into the mats that they sell in local markets. Next door, Dileswar Pradhan proudly spoke of his daughter, Kumari, now in 10th grade at a school some miles away, who can study in the evening by the light of the bulb.

But the social context of power supply here is very different from the villages with solar microgrids that I reported on in Kenya, where everyone wanted a refrigerator and a TV, and bars were opening with sound systems blasting their music into the night.

In the Kandhara forest, the combined generating capacity of the solar panels in all five villages is only 12 kW — enough for one typical American household. As a result, the electricity, which is delivered via cables that reach homes down metal tubes through the thatched straw roofs, is rationed. Every household gets sockets for two three-watt LED bulbs and a mobile phone charging point, for which they pay a flat fee of just 50 rupees (75 cents) a month. But no TVs or fans — much less refrigerators or sound systems — are allowed. When someone in Kanaka bought a TV, the energy committee said he would have to put it in the community center, where I found it plugged into a DVD player containing the village’s only DVD — a copy of “Bandit Queen,” a 1994 biopic about an abused lower caste girl who lead a Robin Hood-style bandit gang.

Most of the meager power available goes to communal facilities like the street lighting that keeps elephants away and the community centers in two of the villages, where IRADA has installed equipment intended to provide income-generating employment for the villagers.

But progress to a more entrepreneurial lifestyle is slow, and the commitment of the villagers is uncertain. In Kanaka’s community center, four sewing machines sat unused in the corner. In Rajanga, the molding press for turning the big leaves of the Saal tree (Shorea Robusta) into

When one man bought a TV, the village committee said he would have to put it in the community center.

circular plates that could be sold in local markets was cobwebbed and “awaiting repairs.”

More hopefully, I watched a grinding machine — by far the most power-hungry piece of equipment in the villages — turn pellets of locally-grown turmeric, a bright yellow spice, into a powder that was weighed by another machine, and sealed by a third into bags for sale in local markets. The grinding was done not by villagers but by a technician from outside the village employed by IRADA, which also did the marketing.

Sales of around 100 kilograms of powder in the first year raised $150, which the NGO deposited in a bank account set up for the villagers. “We’d like the villagers to take over the grinding and marketing, but they don’t have the confidence,” said IRADA’s liaison officer, Bibek Mishra.

In any case, such income is minimal. And it raises real issues about the sustainability of the project, and the viability of lighting the lives of the poorest rural communities in India and elsewhere with solar power.

The problem is that the fees paid by the villagers are far from sufficient to pay for repairs when things go wrong. In the first year, the Kanaka system was downed for a while by a lightning strike, and rain through roofs shorted internal wiring in some houses. And, most problematically, there is no money for the eventual replacement of the bank of batteries that store energy gathered in the day for use at night. Currently, batteries last only about five years and are the biggest cost of the entire system.

TERI had planned to exit the Kandhara project in early 2015, once the grids were up and running. But Palit said his organization has remained

The electricity fees paid by the villagers are far from sufficient to pay for needed repairs.

involved and is searching for long-term funding to keep the microgrid going. “We don’t yet have an exit strategy. We want the district administrators to take over,” he said. IRADA president Nachiketa Das was blunt: “There is a distinct possibility the project will grind to a halt.”

Solar power has had false dawns before in India. In Mangalajodi, a village four hours drive from the forest that runs an eco-tourist operation on the shores of Lake Chilika, I saw PV panels on the roof of the village office installed by IRADA in 2010. There was no microgrid, but villagers brought solar-powered lanterns to the office for recharging. Plugged in for seven hours during the day, the lanterns provide four hours of evening light for about 8 cents.

The project had proved popular initially because, even though the village had a grid connection, it was sometimes out of operation for up to 22 hours a day. But as the grid reliability has improved, so demand for solar power has dwindled. Of the 40 lanterns in the village, only ten were being recharged on the day of my visit. IRADA was considering redeploying the panels to heat water in rooms where the tourists stayed.

Still, microgrids linked to solar power have huge potential in rural India. The technology is there, and it is becoming cheaper all the time. Given the shambolic state of the national grid, and its heavy reliance on coal burning, solar microgrids still seem like the ideal solution for lighting dark communities, says Palit. But the search for a sustainable model to get microgrid to where they are needed goes on.

At IRADA, the organization’s staff is rethinking their support for the egalitarian, socialist NGO model for rolling out microgrids using charity and aid funds. They were interested in learning about the Kenyan experience with pay-as-you-go payment systems and about the benefits of releasing households from strict rules on how much power they could use. Perhaps, they wondered, if richer households in villages with microgrids were allowed to plug in fans and TVs and refrigerators, then power demand would rise and private companies would be encouraged to invest.

“We’d like to move in that direction,” said its secretary Debi Mishra.

It is a familiar dilemma for development projects around the world. Should they be inclusive and make sure even the poorest and most disadvantaged can benefit? Or does such egalitarianism frighten off the private investment needed to make things happen fast and at scale?

Optimists hope that, with the global price of solar energy falling fast, private investment may be able to bring power to even the poorest. India, with more dark villages than any other country, is set to be the test case.

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