Can India’s big bet on Solar Energy help solve Energy Poverty?

November 29, 2017
By Rang De Team

The truth about the efficiency of renewable energy boils down to one word: economics. According to conventional wisdom, it has long been understood that renewable energy will have a marginal impact on our everyday lives if coal-based electricity continues to be cheaper. In India, with the tariffs of solar and wind-based electricity falling below that of coal-based power, the prospects of renewable energy in the country have changed for good.

The trajectory of India’s shift to renewable energy can be seen in the way international publications like the New York Times have covered the renewable energy sector in India, from scathing articles condemning India’s dependence on coal-based energy to articles lavishing praise on the country’s renewable energy ambitions.

The watershed moment for renewable energy in India occurred on 3rd October 2016, when it officially ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.

According to the terms of the Paris Agreement, India is set to replace 40% of existing energy capacity — close to 175 GW of power — with renewable energy.

India is a solar-surplus country, with a vast untapped potential for solar-based power generation. So it is only natural that of the 175 GW renewable energy target, 100 GW will be generated from solar energy.

Despite these bold steps towards sustainable energy generation, nearly 240 million people in India continue to live without electricity. For a majority of India’s population, the challenge when it comes to energy is twofold: finance and accessibility. For many people, the money spent on accessing power represents a significant part of their livelihood. At the same time, the existing grid-based power systems have not reached everyone in the country, leaving millions in the darkness.

The Kotra tehsil in Udaipur district, Rajasthan, is one such region in India without access to grid-based electricity. Kotra has the same problems as other remote, tribal regions in India: a chronic lack of access to healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities. The lack of access to power compounds many of these problems, stifling development in the region.

Many remote rural regions in India do not have access to grid-based electricity. Decentralised renewable energy systems can help these regions get access to power. PC: Vivek Shastry

Vivek Shastry, an energy analyst at the SELCO Foundation in Bengaluru, has been working with the community in Kotra, providing them with electricity through decentralised solar systems.

According to him, “Energy is an entry point for many people. All development in agriculture, livelihoods and agro-based industries follow from there.”

For communities like the ones in Kotra, decentralised renewable energy systems — individual solar units or community wind turbines — could very well provide an alternative way of accessing energy. Despite the remoteness and relative backwardness of the region, solar power is not an alien concept to the people here.

Over the past decade in Kotra, several cheap, China-made solar units flooded the market. A few years ago, an initiative by the state government also provided many of Kotra’s residents with heavily subsidised solar units. The cheap China-made solar products were often of poor quality and stopped working within a few years of use.

A field visit to the Kotra region in Rajasthan. Lack of access to energy compounds social issues in remote, tribal regions like Kotra. PC: Vivek Shastry

The systems provided by the government posed another challenge. As Vivek explains, “Solar systems worth Rs 20,000 were subsidised and offered at Rs 1,000. This was a great initiative. But without an existing network of service and repair, if the solar system stopped working for some reason or the other, people stopped using them entirely.”

In the absence of grid-based power, the families here spend a substantial chunk of their monthly income on accessing traditional sources of fuel like kerosene or wood, which have an adverse impact on the health of the family, particularly the women and children. In villages throughout the region, the need for electricity is acutely felt in unique ways.

For instance, it is not uncommon for the men to undertake long trips to the central marketplace to charge their mobile phones — often to listen to favourite Hindi movie songs.

When it comes to energy poverty in regions like Kotra, providing band-aid solutions erodes the faith of the people in renewable energy, making it hard to convince the people to take up renewable energy again. This is tragic because the benefits of solar energy in are immense.

Ensuring the success of renewable energy in the region equires innovative strategies. One method is to engage the local community members. The Kotra Adivasi Sansthan is an NGO that has been working for the rights of Adivasis in the Kotra region for more than 30 years. They are playing a pivotal role in convincing local community members in Kotra to take up solar energy.

Ensuring the success of renewable energy in rural areas requires innovative strategies, which involve addressing issues of finance

Another effective strategy is to introduce an alternative financing model. The SELCO Foundation is working Rang De to provide low-cost financing to the people in Kotra.

Since March this year, 25 families have been provided with solar units in the pilot phase of the project.

The solar loans offered by Rang De will soon provide 45 more families in Kotra with solar energy units. These solar loans, with are repaid in monthly installments, are allowing many families with low-incomes to go ahead with installing solar power units in their homes..

The persistent problem of energy poverty in India can only be solved through concerted efforts of the government and policy interventions at the highest levels. But for the marginalised sections of the populace, who often fall through the cracks in the system, a needs-based model of providing access to energy, like the one underway in Kotra, might be worth exploring.

A version of this article was first published here on Youth Ki Awaaz.

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