Rural India to Get Solar Too

Posted by on January 9, 2015 in Asia, Green, Tech

India_Village_solarLast week I wrote about India’s ambitious plans for solar development. The country seems ready to mobilize its growing industrial prowess to show the world that it can accomplish the leap to clean energy without sacrificing its dynamic economic growth rate. The new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced ambitious goals for massive centralized solar plants that could, if completed, catapult India to the forefront of the solar horse race.

Considering India’s very large rural population, many of which are still without reliable power, this raises the question that has been emerging as renewables continue their broad development across the globe. Will the renewable revolution take place in a centralized manner, as plug-in substitutes for the coal and natural gas plants of today, or will they usher in a total new paradigm of decentralized generation that will leapfrog today’s distribution infrastructure, much as the cell phone revolution has done in the communications sphere across Asia and Africa?

The answer is clearly some of each, at least in the near term. But as things shake out over time, which paradigm will dominate?

Aside from India, Japan also seems to be following a large scale centralized solar development plan, in their case, as a replacement for the nuclear path that they had intended to follow up until the Fukushima disaster. Three quarters of their new solar installations, comprising some 10 gigawatts, has been in the form of large scale projects.

But, that is only one part of the solar story. In India, for example, there is another path being blazed by, among others, the Rockefeller Foundation, CSE India, and the Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $75 million to its Smart Power for India initiative. The initiative will focus on promoting sustainable business models for renewable power generation with an eye towards spurring economic development among India’s poor, underserved rural population.

For starters, the program will target telecom towers, which typically use carbon-spewing diesel generators. India alone has 350,000 of these which consume some 2 billion liters of diesel fuel.

Then they will look to the villages where 290 million people, close to the entire US population, lack even minimal access to electricity for lighting. Many of them use hazardous kerosene lamps. Rockefeller Foundation research has shown that half of these people will require services beyond the grid. In many of these cases, geography, it seems, will force the choice. CSE India estimates that over 9,000 villages are beyond the reach of the transmission lines required for grid electricity. The program will partner with electricity service companies (ESCO) to provide electrification to rural villages. The target is 1,000 villages by the end of 2017. These will primarily be served by local micro-grids.

A recent census shows that of the nearly 600,000 villages in India, 95.7% have received some level of electrification. That still leaves over 25,000 villages without power.

Some data shows that in a number of villages, while electrification has grown (primarily from the grid), per capita consumption has not. This means that either residents do not have the means to incorporate electricity into their lives, or that the devices are becoming far more efficient. LED lighting for example, uses only 10-12% as much power as the incandescent bulbs they are replacing, a factor that could easily conceal increased usage based on meter reads alone.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which has been in existence for over 100 years focuses on four key areas: advancement of health, revaluing of ecosystems, securing livelihoods, and transforming cities. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that, despite the fact that the Foundation has its origins in the fossil fuel industry, the transition away from those energy sources to cleaner and more sustainable options is central to each of these focus area.

It’s clear that India’s energy picture going forward is a complex one, as rich and varied as the country itself. But the good news is that this juggernaut of rapid energy growth seems to be taking a supertanker turn in the direction of solar energy, a resource that they have plenty of, much to the benefit of everyone living on this planet.

Image credit: DFID UK Department For International Development: Flickr Creative Commons

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