Ending energy poverty in India is part of tackling climate change

Energy for all
Is vital in India
Can outsiders help?

NGOs don’t often talk about energy poverty and they should. Electricity means kids are more likely to do their homework; dirty energy for cooking fills the houses of the poor with smoke and does terrible damage to health. Two recent items in my inbox brought this to mind. Firstly a post on the the excellent new blog Political Climate:

‘Climate negotiations tend to focus on whether countries such as India can be persuaded to take on some form of quasi-binding emissions limitation target. Our view is that it would be far better to engage in a technology-specific negotiation. With 300 clear sunny days per calendar year, solar is the obvious priority (although there would and should be others). So the key India question is; what can international cooperation achieve in dramatically reducing the unit cost of electricity from solar?

Until the climate negotiations or other global processes focus in on the aspects of the debate that really matter to the political economy of major emitters (and those with the potential to become so, which is how India would see itself), they are unlikely to be moved. Why would they be?’

That arrived about the same time as email from our office in New Delhi, reporting a discussion on some new research from the Vasudha Foundation “Shifting of goal posts: rural electrification in India” (can’t find a URL for the paper, but would love to receive it).

In India, 54% of rural households have no access to electricity. Progress on electrification in rural areas has been very slow over the last two decades. Kerosene is the main source of energy used for lighting in rural households without access to electricity.

let the sun do the cooking
let the sun do the cooking

Even in the rural villages with electricity, supply is very limited, from 3 to 6 hours a day (in the villages surveyed for the research). Most of this supply comes at night (sometimes even after 10 p.m., so not very useful). Quality of the supply is also an issue, as voltage varies a lot (which can damage equipment, especially pumps used for irrigation). As a result, many villages prefer diesel irrigation pumps and are using electricity only as a back up system.

Vasudha Foundation is calling for a shift from a centralized production model (i.e. villages connected to a grid where electricity is produced by massive power plants using coal or nuclear) to a decentralized model, based on small units at village level using renewable energies (solar, micro-hydro, wind, bio-mass).

Nice idea, but can it work? The seminar gave a mixed answer for the following reasons (in no particular order):

Centralised versus decentralised is not the right question. Villages need both and both systems can complement one another. Production of electricity at village level based on renewables needs to be connected to the grid to be a sustainable business model (capacity to sell electricity surplus when too much production and capacity to get electricity from the grid when generation falls). That means that the power purchase agreements between the firms managing the grid and the small units at village level are very important. In India, this market is weighted against small/decentralized production units.

Each kind of renewable has its own problems: solar needs large storage capacity; micro hydro is often seasonal (example in India of villages in Himalayas getting micro hydro during part of spring, and summer and autumn but nothing during winter time, as rivers/streams are frozen); bio-mass is renewable and year-round but comes at a cost.

Massive scale up of small-scale renewables will only happen if it is seen as a successful business model. There’s evidence that is happening, notably, beginnings of mass production of really reliable, robust, bright and cheap – hence desirable – solar lanterns.
However – in India at least – renewables face unfair competition. Electricity generated from coal or nuclear (nuclear is marginal in India, anyhow) is heavily subsidised.

In India, both the government and the private sector (despite what they claim) are not really solar power in Indiainterested in a model of decentralised renewable energy. The private sector would be interested if it was making a profit, meaning if these systems were connected to the grid to sell surplus and these surplus were bought at an adequate price. Interest from the government is more in large units using renewables rather than small scale village level production.

However, most people in rural India are happy to pay for access to quality energy. So solutions could be explored. But problems of scale will remain.

Putting the two together, could the international community do more to help turn small scale renewables into a viable business proposition in India? For more background, see Greenpeace’s ‘Energy [r]evolution: A Sustainable India Energy Outlook’. The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy had a conference on this in New Delhi in February – skimming the presentations they seem to focus on technologies, acceptability issues and finance. Finance is crucial and Indian organisations like Selco have been pioneers in advocating wide-ranging financing reforms, from micro-credit to the willingness of banks to lend to energy entrepeneurs. Why not earmark international carbon finance (e.g. the Clean Development Mechanism) for a massive international push to provide mass-produced efficient stoves and solar lanterns? But before we get too captivated by technical solutions, maybe we should look further at the public policy issues that may be behind the reluctance to act.  

Anyone got other info on what’s already happening?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.

Comments

5 Responses to “Ending energy poverty in India is part of tackling climate change”
  1. Stefano B,, Italy

    Hi Duncan,
    “NGOs don’t often talk about energy poverty and they should”: I couldn’t agree more.
    And as a renewable energy professional with a past (and maybe a future) in the development sector I really enjoy todays’ blog.
    I read the conclusion of Vashuda Foundation, and tough I find them really interesting (and I would love to read the paper), I have some observations.
    While I share their vision that “centralized versus decentralized is not the right question”, I fear that decentralized will remain the only solution for most of the rural villages, since building a centralized grid to carry power to thousands or remote villages, which furthermore are inhabited by low-income individuals , is not going to be that appealing for big utilities or the government. Building a centralized grid takes a lot of money and a lot of time.
    That’s why I think that decentralized off-grid generation from renewables may particularly fit rural India’s need, at least in the short-medium term.
    Also, I don’t share a couple of things:

    – “solar needs large storage capacity”
    It all depends, of course, on the amount of energy we want to store; if we take a look at some solar lanterns for home use, (i.e. : http://www.dlightdesign.com) , they already provide interesting solutions with a small storage capacity. Anyway, it should be kept in mind that electricity – and not only solar electricity – is usually not produced to be stored but to be consumed right away (dispatchability). Since the surge of renewables there’s been a lot of research about electricity storage, but as far as I know we are a long way from making it cost-competitive

    – “bio-mass is renewable and year-round but comes at a cost”:
    Well, the big advantage of biomass is the chance of utilizing waste biomass, which can be procured at low cost or in some cases even for free. Of course there’s the capital cost and some running costs, but while the latter is usually higher than what required for other renewables (but may constitute a source of local jobs), the former is typically lower, for instance, than solar’s one.

    For a business-oriented solution to rural renewable electrification you can take a look at Husk Power Systems (http://www.huskpowersystems.com/): they biomass gasification to convert rice husks (which comes for free) into combustible gases, which then drive a generator to produce electricity.
    Here (http://community.acumenfund.org/forum/topics/qa-on-husk-power-systems) you can find a Q&A-blog about their business model.

    Financing, as usual, constitutes one of the major hurdles: this is an area where I think microfinance should focus, and may able to deliver great results.

    Stefano

  2. There are quite a few micro-hydro electricity projects being tried out in India – one implementer I am familiar with is Gram Vikas, an NGO in the east Indian state, Orissa. Gram Vikas(http://www.gramvikas.org/) has been working on installing micro-hydro systems that are built using locally available resources and where local communities take care of the post-installation operational costs. These systems (of about 20 kW) are enough to power lights for a couple of hundred houses – so really small decentralised systems. They have of course faced numerous challenges in this approach.

    Gram Vikas has also tried out solar PV-run LED lamps – these are cheaper; can ride on micro-credit schemes; and are easy to repair

  3. Duncan. You are absolutely right- access to energy is essential, and often overlooked in the battle against poverty. Practical Action has been working in this area for some time – we have micro hydro solutions in Peru which are sustainable and fundable. Revolving funds ensure that community maintains meaningful ownership. And further experience of this with wind energy in Nepal. But fundamentally there is a huge gap in funding. What the world spends on energy access tends to go into large scale infrastructure – not decentralised and not renewable. You might want to have a shufty at my colleague, Teo Sanchez’s new book on “the Hidden Crisis” which is now available at development bookshop.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. Energy is very important to progress. The government should supply energy of all kinds to all parts of the world to take India ahead. We are an ecotel hotel in Jaipur, India. We find that some parts of Jaipur also suffer because of no energy. We hope the situation changes soon!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.