Gobar Times
Cover Story

The Sun is Up

How solar power brings sunshine to remotest regions

Jadumoni Ghosh lives on the Choto Mollakhali island, part of the 54 islands that make up the Sunderbans in West Bengal. All of 15-years, she always had trouble passing examinations in school. She had a mere two hour gap to study between helping her mother with chores after school and sunset. “It would get too dark by evening time and we had no electricity,” she says, “In this much time, I had to finish assignments, study the day’s lessons and prepare for the next day. It would never happen.” The national electricity transmission grid, that carries power generated by India’s coal burning power plants to homes, had no plans of coming close to Jadumoni’s village. But life changed after her father invested twice his monthly salary in a solar home system (SHS) which could power two CFL lights, a fan and charge Jadumoni’s father’s mobile phone. Today, Jadumoni feels confident of passing her secondary school examinations. “I can study well into the night and finish all my assignments,” she beams, showing off a notebook marked with a bright A+. Her father can continue with his basket weaving work and earn a little more money that makes a lot of difference to his family.



 

Jadumoni’s is an off-grid household.

Off (the) grid means living separated or disconnected from the national electricity transmission grid. In western countries, people prefer to go off-grid out of choice, to lead more ‘sustainable’ lives. But for the 800 million households in India, currently without connection to the electricity grid, this is not a matter of choice. It is a matter of necessity. Individual units of renewable energy applications, such as a roof-mounted solar home system or a micro hydropower plant, provide for the basic requirements of a household – lighting a bulb, powering a fan or a charge controller.

Now, India is gearing up for the largest transmission network in the world – 1,40,000 circuit kilometres – by January 2014. But those already connected to the grid cannot claim to be having a great time either. Remember the Great Grid Collapse of 2012? How many of you have known 24x7 electricity supply?

Gaps in grid power and India’s ‘crushing poverty’ are cited as reasons for the success of individual off-grid solar power. But it has its limitations. So how do we make sure that more than a million households in India do not continue to go dark after sunset? And then, look for a way forward. From just lighting a villager’s home to powering a villager’s farm and factory.

How we off-grid

What is the first thing you do when you get back home after a long day? Switch on the fan or air-conditioner, open the fridge for something refreshingly cold to drink and turn on your television or computer for some good viewings. Does this sound familiar? And now can you imagine doing any of this without ubiquitous but invisible electricity? In fact, can you imagine your life without it?

Even after 66 years of Independence, one-third of India’s total households do not have access to electricity. There are isolated villages from the Chin Hills of Mizoram to the Sagar Island in the Sunderbans which cannot be reached by the national transmission grid. They are too far away, the terrain is too difficult and the number of households there are too few to justify the cost of bringing an expensive, polluting grid to them.

India’s energy poverty is not only about not having enough electricity to light homes and power pumps. It is also about lacking the power to light schools and hospitals in villages, power shops and local businesses in far-flung small towns. Add to this the fact that the electricity grid, backed by coal-based power plants, is a major carbon emitter, and we have a huge problem on our hands.

So how do we solve our problem of power, without creating a problem of pollution? Can we have our cake and eat it too? As has been our culture, India’s policy makers decided to look to the sun for answers. And CSE’s researchers took to the most remote parts of Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Haryana, Assam, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and West Bengal to look at how they are doing. This is what they found...

THE BUSINESS OF OFF-GRID

Saroj Kumar, a daily wage worker, from Jagdeeshpur village in Bihar, bought a solar home lighting system for Rs 7,000 in 2011. This sum is over two times his monthly income. But Saroj is a happy man. His home is lit up and he is in fact, saving money. Previously, Saroj paid Rs 100 a month to a private supplier with a diesel generator. This man gave him enough electricity to power a 10 watt fluorescent lamp for four hours a day, and charge his mobile phone.

Solar lighting applications are thriving in Bihar. Exhibition Road in Patna is said to be the largest off-grid solar retail market in the world, with an unofficial Rs 500 crore annual turnover.

It is not just Bihar. 2,500 families in over 245 villages in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand have been provided home lighting systems by Avani, a local NGO. Additionally, the youth have also been trained to install, repair and maintain these systems. Many social businesses, non-governmental organisations and financial institutions operate in this space. There have been many successful business models developed around lighting people’s homes and businesses with solar power such as the one developed by Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) in Karnataka. They created a for-profit, social enterprise by providing people with micro loans for solar lights.

Then there is Assam. The Assam Energy Development Agency has provided 33,830 solar home-lighting systems (SHS) to 730 remote villages. This means a whole lot more to the residents of these villages, than just regular lighting at home. They can charge their mobile phones without travelling 10 kms and paying Rs 5. They save Rs 300-400 per month that they used to spend on kerosene. Children can study after sunset and adults can continue working. For most of the villages, situated on the flood plains of the Brahmaputra, grid-connected power would have been quite useless. But they never had that option to begin with...

Some like it solar

Let us talk numbers.

Some 77 million Indian households have only kerosene lamps as lighting. One million households use wood. And 1.2 million households have nothing. Nothing. Maharashtra has the highest number of households without any access to power. Gujarat has the second highest number of no-power households. Ironically, Gujarat also has the highest grid-connected solar power in India.

These numbers are the soil for the growth of off-grid solar. According to the government’s Census 2011, nearly 1 million households, across the country, now use solar power for lighting their homes. West Bengal has .24 million households using solar lighting, while .16 million in Uttar Pradesh have solar lights. In fact, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the largest users of solar lighting systems.

Governing the grid

Government schemes have been struggling with lighting up villages for a while now. Since 1988, the Ministry of Power has been grappling with rural electrification through the Kutir Jyoti Scheme. Come 2005, and the focus shifted to meeting energy needs through decentralised renewable energy through the National Electricity Policy.

For nearly twelve years now, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has been installing solar home and street lighting systems across the country. It has been running Solar Photo-Voltaic (SPV) Programmes since the 1980s to popularise the use of SPV applications. The solar water heater was the first SPV application to be developed in India. The central government started a Solar Photo-Voltaic Water Pumping Programme in 1993 to make it popular.

 

In the decade between 2001 and 2012, the MNRE spent Rs 634.19 crores under the Rural Village Electrification Programme (2001). With this money, it brought solar power to 8,500 villages and 1,400 hamlets across the country, counts CSE’s book on the off-grid renewable revolution called Going Remote.

In 2010, the mother of all solar energy schemes in our country, Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission started. It superseded everything else. Targets: 2,000 megawatt for off-grid SPV applications and 20 million solar lanterns by 2022.

Grid of the problem

While off-grid solar has brought light to many far flung lives, it is not without its problems.

Firstly, there is no after-sales service or maintenance support for the SHS. Or even a channel for exchanging information between the consumer and supplier. Take a look at what happened to Indira Devi, a resident of Galagat village of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand. The Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA) had distributed 100 SHS in her village. The two CFL bulbs provided to her stopped working in less than six months. She had no idea that they were covered under a One Year Warranty. And she did not know who to contact for help.

UREDA maintains that they had trained 128 para-technicians. “All the pradhans (village chiefs) have phone numbers of the technicians, who also charge fees, and can be paid accordingly,” CP Agarwal of UREDA told CSE. But neither the villagers nor the village pradhan, Hema Bisht, has heard of any technicians. Moreover, Bisht complains that for minor technical faults villagers have to haul their SHS to Dharchula, 40 kms away. This is an expensive journey.

Residents of other villages in Uttarakhand such as Bung Bung and Bhetuli also complain of the lack of after-sales service.

Looking up to the sun

Secondly, since it is viewed as only a transitory solution by the government, there is no model to upscale. Off-grid individual home lighting systems can power some lights and a fan, but villagers want more. And why not? How long can they be viewed as remote, inaccessible households that only need lights and fans?

This frustration at the limitations of their solar lighting systems is palpable among the people of Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh. “Illumination is not sufficient,” Itwarin Bai from Kalaar Baahra hamlet in Dhamtari told CSE. She likes her solar panel, but cannot help feel jealous of the villagers a mere half kilometre away who have grid-connected power.

“People do not want just home lighting systems because they serve their lighting needs only. However, some customers buy these panels for even recharging their tractor batteries. The government does not have subsidy mechanisms for this needful application,” says Hari Narayan Gupta, a solar shop owner in Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh. His most hot selling item is a solar module.

So, off-grid has glaring limitations. What can create light at the end of this dark tunnel?

THE SUNNY SIDE OF MICRO GRID

When RVEP started in Chhattisgarh in 2003, the Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) distributed SHSs to households at subsidised rates. In 2004, they conducted a survey to find that of the 617 solar modules setup in tribal hostels, ashrams and primary health centres, 500 were stolen! “Half the panels were stolen within the first year. Some even sold them off or mortgaged them,” said SK Shukla, director of CREDA.

Since then, CREDA has up-scaled micro grid efforts. Micro grids are exactly what they sound like. They are small-scale grids transmitting electricity between a small power station, in this case a solar power plant, and a certain number of households in the vicinity. After CREDA setup the first micro grid in 2004, 1,439 remote villages were electrified by May 2012.

Deba is a small village tucked away inside Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh. A 4-kilowatt solar power plant and micro grid generates 28 units of electricity a day here. This micro grid lights up all homes and streets of Deba for seven hours a day. Without fail. The only time they faced a blackout was when a lightning bolt hit transmissions cables, a resident of the village told CSE.

This micro grid has not only reduced incidents of theft but it has also created a commercial demand for solar systems in the region. Chhattisgarh’s micro grid model is the most successful renewable energy uptake programme so far. CREDA’s three-tier maintenance model gets most of the credit. An operator cleans the solar modules every day and does minor repairs. He receives Rs 5 per house per month from the households. A technician, who does major repairs, gets Rs 25 per month per house from the state government. CREDA is the only government agency in the country which gets help from the state government for paying salaries to technicians.

Micro grids operate in some parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. Non-governmental organisation, Gram Oorja, runs one such micro grid at Darewadi, a village 140 kms from Pune in Maharashtra. Organisations such as Desi Power, Husk Power Systems, Saran Renewable Energies, Mera Gaon Micro Grid Power, and Naturetech Infra all operate micro grids as commercial businesses.

Taking micro steps

But there are some problems here as well. The estimates that policy makers have for the demand for power are outdated. With outdated numbers, they can only design outdated projects. Take for example the case of Rawan village in Chhattisgarh. A 7kW plant was planned here for 130 CFL bulbs. Today, there are 150 lights, 25 televisions sets and 100 mobile phones in Rawan.

Add to this the fact that while the Chhattisgarh government pays Rs 45 per household to the local operator, a household only pays Rs 5 per month, regardless of how much power they consume.

How does the government plan to ensure this model sustains itself? The limitations of not being able to scale up or cover any of the costs are debilitating.

Too little, but not too late

But the micro grid is a good starting point for moving towards pollution-free power for all. It provides more options to the consumers than an individual off-grid system. And it has the potential of becoming financially viable. Experts suggest linking fees paid to the amount of electricity consumed. And providing a feed-in tariff, a fee for excess energy supplied to the grid, to the micro grid operators.

But at the end of the day, when the sun goes down, renewable energy remains a fringe solution. It can barely make its presence felt in India’s energy profile. Much more decisive steps need to be taken to make it a power to reckon with. (Pun intended). Lighting bulbs and turning fans is done. Now it must run schools, serve hospitals and fuel businesses.

South Asia and how we do it

Off-grid renewable energy as a viable idea to light up homes too far away to ever see the grid is peculiar to the South Asian region. Let us take a closer look at how the different countries of the region go about it.

They may have have different stories to tell, but the South Asian countries have more similarities than differences.

BANGLADESH: Groundwork by Grameen

 

The Bangladesh Renewable Energy Policy 2008 and the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) Act 2012 are governing law and policy, respectively.

In Bangladesh, a vibrant network of NGOs and social businesses take solar power to households in need. Grameen Shakti, one of 32 Grameen social businesses, is the world’s fastest growing rural renewable energy programme. Since its inception in 1996 and till November 2010, Grameen Shakti had installed 5,00,524 home systems across all 64 districts of Bangladesh. It installs 20,000 systems each month. Rural Services Foundation (RSF), another NGO in Bangladesh, is a distant second with 94,482 installations till October 2012.

There are many reasons for Grameen Shakti’s astounding success. Mostly, it is about money. The company claims middle-income households save about Taka (Tk) 800 each month, while low-income households save Tk 200. By combining micro-finance with efficient after-sale service and by involving local actors, especially women, the social business turned a profit in 4 years. The company has an extensive on-the- ground presence and a service centre network of 1,159 offices staffed by 8,975 employees across the country. It serves 3 million people in Bangladesh.

Content courtesy: Aditya Batra

SRI LANKA: Dendro-nomics

Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority is the government body and the National Energy Policies and Strategies of Sri Lanka (2008) is the government policy. Apart from the usual wind, hydro and solar, the island country also counts biomass (dendro) and burning agricultural, industrial and municipal waste as renewable energy. There is some amount of tidal energy – electricity produced from the action of waves of the sea – in the mix.

Sri Lanka has a single electricity transmission network for the whole country with the exception of a small area in the North and Eastern Provinces and certain other rural areas. Through the Renewable Energy for Rural Economic Development (RERED) Project, the government aims to electrify 1,60,000 remote rural homes through solar home systems and off-grid village hydro, wind and biomass projects.

As of December 2011, approximately 6,220 households have electricity thanks to RERED’s off-grid projects.

NEPAL: Policy makes the difference

80 per cent of Nepal’s approximately 42,53,220* households are in rural areas, and less than one-third have electricity. “Renewable, off-grid energy solutions [are] the only realistic way to provide energy in parts of the country,” says the National Rural and Renewable Energy Programme (NRREP), a five-year framework launched in 2012. The policy funds hydropower, solar, biomass and wind projects in remote areas.

The new policy has reworked subsidies to distinguish between where users live, the increased cost of developing renewable energy there, and gives special concessions to women and marginalised groups. If you live in areas inaccessible by road you will get more subsidy for your solar home systems or micro-hydro power plant. If you live in difficult mountainous area, you will get more subsidies for biogas. The average subsidies have been raised by 24 to 40 per cent. Single women, disaster-affected and indigenous groups get one-time grant of US$ 29.

* According to Census 2001

PAKISTAN: Wind in the west

Pakistan has a Renewable Energy Policy for Development of Power Generation 2006, which it is in the process of updating to boost domestic renewable energy industry by 2014. Alternate energy in Pakistan also includes waste-to-energy and biodiesel. The going has been slow, and Pakistan lags far behind other South Asian neighbours.

The Solar Energy Research Centre (SERC) says, in a report, that 70 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in 50,000 villages that are very far away from the national grid. The coastal belt of the country is particularly difficult terrain to access. The country seems to have woken up to its potential for wind energy and is slowly swinging in to action. Micro-wind involves setting up small-scale wind turbines feeding a cluster of households. Pakistan’s Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB) has brought power to 356 homes in Mirpur Sakro, in the country’s south, through 85 micro turbines. In Kund Malir, part of the south west coastal belt, 111 homes have power thanks to 40 turbines.