Solar Power in Rural India
July 5, 2012
What this shows (yet again) is a couple things.
a) Third world countries are going to be a huge market for the solar industry. Like the adoption of cell phones throughout the developing world, photovoltaic solar development will proceed by “leapfrogging” steps that took industrialized countries decades to achieve, i.e., the buildout of complex and expensive phone systems, or in this case, electrical grids.
b) In doing this, people in India and Africa will demonstrate how to build an electricity supply that is not as vulnerable as the highly centralized and interdependent systems that is currently causing so much difficulty in the mid-atlantic states, following last week’s super-Derecho event.
In the middle of the dense woodland near Sullia, a small town in southern India, there is one form of lighting for the poor and another for the rich: for the former, lamps burning kerosene, which has to be fetched from a source several hours away on foot, and is bad for the lungs; for the latter, electricity distributed to comfortable houses, generally occupied by rubber plantation managers. “Thanks to electricity their days last longer,” says Renuka. She lives with her husband and mother-in-law in a small, hillside house and often walks past the rich rubber plantations.
A few months ago engineers from the Solar Electric Light Company, a Bangalore-based energy firm, appeared with solar panels, which they then presented to the villagers. “They explained that electricity could come directly from the sun without going via the government,” Renuka recalls.
The family paid about $125 for a solar panel that powers two light bulbs and a socket. “It’s not as good as the rich people’s electricity, but at least my husband no longer has to travel kilometres to recharge his mobile phone and I will be able to make more cigarettes in the evening,” says a delighted Renuka.
Thanks to solar power Selco has brought electricity to 135,000 households in Karnataka state. The government claims to have electrified 98% of the state, but in practice the power lines sidestep some houses while in others the inhabitants lack the $300 needed to pay for a few metres of cable, not to mention the associated bribes.
Selco, which defines itself as a for-profit social enterprise, owes its success to the banks, as well as abundant sunlight. The banks loan funds to install solar panels and promote the technology in their branches. Savings on energy costs allow borrowers to pay off their loans easily.
“We target people earning $2 to $3 a day and nearly 95% of our customers take out a loan,” says Kannan Revathi, Selco’s financial director.
Meerwada has long hewed to the sun’s schedule. The village of 400 in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state lies 70 km from the nearest town, and until last year it was not supplied with power. Daily chores were completed between sunrise and sunset, or else by the light of polluting kerosene lamps. “Our village has never had electricity,” says Daulat Ram, Meerwada’s village head. “We struggled without it.”
Now Meerwada doesn’t just live by the sun, it harnesses it. SunEdison, a California-based solar-power-services company, selected Meerwada as the first village in its Eradication of Darkness program, which aims to light up 150 villages throughout India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. The electricity is not free — households pay $1 to $1.50 per month for the electricity — an amount equivalent to what they were paying for kerosene. But the pilot project has made Meerwada a forerunner in India: a remote village with round-the-clock power. “Connect 50 houses, run a small solar plant and let people use energy as they deem fit,” says Pasupathy Gopalan, managing director of SunEdison’s South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa operations. “In Meerwada, we started by giving them only one light. Now, nine months later, they have 24/7 electricity.”
With the cost of solar photovoltaic cells falling — prices dropped by 50% last year and are now a quarter of what they were in 2008 — renewable-energy advocates say India is ripe for a solar-power revolution. And it could use it. More than 40% of the countryside is still not connected to the national power grid, and a 2010 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. said power demand in India trails supply by 12.7%. Closing this gap “will be critical for India to achieve its growth targets,” the report said. Failure to meet that unsatisfied demand could hamper India’s growth, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said in a recent report. If India is to target a growth trajectory of 9% a year, it will have to increase energy production by 6.5% every year, the WEF said. Supporters hope solar energy can help address this power gap while allowing India to stick to its goal of cutting carbon emissions by 20% to 25% by 2020.
With around 300 sunny days a year nationwide, solar energy’s potential in India is immense. And with $10.2 billion investments in clean energy, money is starting to follow the opportunity. India received $95 million in venture-capital funding and over $1.1 billion in large-scale funding for solar projects in 2011, according to a report by Mercom Capital, a clean-energy consulting firm. The biggest funding deal was a $694 million loan raised by Maharashtra State Power Generation Co. for its 150-MW Dhule and 125-MW Sakri solar projects. “The needs of rural India will not be, should not be and cannot be met by the national grid,” says Bhoo Thirumalai, CEO of Aspiration Energy, an emerging solar company. “Solar is the most practical solution for rural India.”