India’s Poor: Leapfrogging the Grid

July 7, 2011

One of the most powerful emergent properties of the energy and information revolutions is the way new technologies allow developing nations to “leapfrog” the ponderous and expensive infrastructure that took a century for developed nations to build.  The most visible example is the explosive growth of cell phone technology, giving third world populations instant communications without decades of hard wire network-building.

The same process has been building in the renewable energy space, with the steady drop in prices, particularly for photovoltaic solar cells.

This week the AP shines a light on electrifying developments in India.

Across India, thousands of homes are receiving their first light through small companies and aid programs that are bypassing the central electricity grid to deliver solar panels to the rural poor. Those customers could provide the human energy that advocates of solar power have been looking for to fuel a boom in the next decade.

With 40 percent of India’s rural households lacking electricity and nearly a third of its 30 million agricultural water pumps running on subsidized diesel, “there is a huge market and a lot of potential,” said Santosh Kamath, executive director of consulting firm KPMG in India. “Decentralized solar installations are going to take off in a very big way and will probably be larger than the grid-connected segment.” adds:

In America, almost every home in the country has access to electrical grid and all the benefits that come with that. The Associated Press notes that in India, the world’s second most populous country, more than 300 million people live without access to electricity. That amounts to roughly the population of the United States. The news source spoke with villagers in those areas and many still hope to see the grid extended to their area, but a growing number are finding it simpler and more reliable to put forward the money to invest in a small solar installation.

The basic idea behind this application of solar technology is known as distributed generation, and its advantages are hardly restricted to just the developing world. Most power plants rely on economies of scale to prove workable, requiring a plant of a certain size to be economically feasible. This means, however, that miles and miles of power lines must connect power plants to the people who will ultimately use this electricity. By bringing the power generation directly to the users, as solar installations can, distributed generation reduces the inefficiency of transporting huge amounts of electricity across the country, through metal wires and expensive converters, just to get to the people who need it.

For decades, development agencies, politicians and corporations have pushed the centralized model of electrification that may have been appropriate for WPA era in the US, and Stalinist Russia,  but has not been able to deliver in capital constrained developing countries.
In India, families are no longer waiting for the “Kitchen of Tomorrow” – they’re grabbing the new technology, and changing their own lives, today.

16 Responses to “India’s Poor: Leapfrogging the Grid”

  1. I actually just learned about Leapfrogging in one of my Global Studies class. Though I think development is great- I do believe in the old idea that sometimes going through all the steps give you a better foundation. I am very happy for them though.

    What are your thoughts on it?


    • greenman3610 Says:

      the leapfrogging process will surprise everyone, and I predict unpredictable developments.
      One likely benefit is the dispersal of economic and political power, which are necessarily consolidated and concentrated when electricity is derived from hard-to-get fuels, burned in very expensive central stations.
      Could this be why powerful fossil fuel interests are so afraid of renewable energy?

      • Who knows. The only thing I know is that it would be nice to have reliable energy. What I mean by that is that in certain countries in Latin America, you can lose power suddenly and for an unknown period of time (sometimes for days).

        At the same time though, let’s say we used nuclear power more often as a source of energy. Sure the US can afford to that (as far as security and personnel goes), but what about other countries, specially those struggling with ongoing civil wars (like Burma, Colombia, Nigeria, etc)?

        • greenman3610 Says:

          most power outages relate to problems in the grid, regardless of the fuel used to produce power.
          Yet another reason why locally produced renewable power would insulate populations from that kind of instability.

          • In Colombia most outages are related to insurgents blowing power systems- not to technical problems. They do so because it is easier to vandalize towns in the dark. This is what I was referring to. If they do this with current systems of energy… they could do so with others, which could be more dangerous.

  2. Eclipse Now Says:

    This is awesome! As a fan of “Open Source Hardware” local energy solutions for a pre-grid society, I’m truly hoping this can mean better health and economic prosperity for the poor. Awesome!

    And I agree that these villages can’t build their own GenIV nukes but can build their own wind turbines and (if they can afford it) put up their own solar panels (but how expensive are they to buy? Silicon ain’t low tech or cheap!)

    very expensive central stations.

    I disagree. Centralization of really large powerful nukes can be apparently expensive on a capital cost, but with a 50 to 60 to 80 year lifespan, will end up being the cheapest khw of clean electricity that we can produce. “Centralization” doesn’t have to be a dirty word!

    Once they get some light they can work and study at night, which is revolutionary. Better to have some lower scale, intermittent, unreliable electricity than none at all! Truly, I wish them well.

    But once their rural area economy starts to truly explode, then it’s time to upgrade to modern power grids which in bulk supply can come in cheaper than anything else for reliable baseload electricity.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      your position sounds a little like, “Well, these PCs are nice, but they’re really toys – eventually folks will want to do some REAL computing, and go back to scheduling time at the computer center.”

      • Eclipse Now Says:

        Well, the analogy doesn’t fit because home PC’s are very powerful these days. If that were true of renewables, it would be more like they were “Mr Fusion” off Back to the Future!

        But it’s not.

        These people are wiring up huge solar panels on their roofs just to charge 1-light! Oh the power! Yeah, that’ll do just fine when they want to add refrigeration, let alone power their whole first-world house of gadgets and maybe an electric car! 😉

        No. First world grids need nukes, and they can have them TODAY if we get cracking. I was just corrected on Barry’s Brave New Climate blog. I argued that we really need to get the modular S-PRISM prototypes out there NOW, but another pro nuke activist said we can *already* do assembly-line nukes that have built-in passive safety systems.

        He wrote:

        Gen III+ reactors (AP1000, ESBWR) are also largely ‘modular’ with parts built in a factory and assembled on site. We can do this now. New designs should be developed, but there is no need to wait. In 10 years China will be building AP1000 (or their higher-power variant the CAP1400) reactors at rates that will astonish the world. They are building the module factories now.

        This actually works well with the fuel cycle. If I waved my magic wand and overnight every city and village had all the GenIV reactors they needed, it would still take a few decades to breed up our nuclear waste to the right purity to run them! That is, although we *already* have 500 years worth of nuclear fuel sitting around in our ‘waste’ cooling ponds, it till take a few decades to get at.

        (A waste fuel charge in an IFR takes 7 years to double the fissionable material, and then that goes into the next plant and takes another 7 years to double, etc… that’s why such a small amount of nuclear waste can run the world. After all, if we put it all in those steel oil drums it would only cover a football field).

        So because we have GenIII reactors right now, the world should build AP1000 factories to fire them off the assembly line in modular form, get trucked to site, and installed. We’d save the climate and have more fuel ready to power GenIV reactors when they DO arrive. (It’ll take 10 to 15 years to prototype, and we KNOW they work from 300 reactor years of fast-breeder reactors).

        • greenman3610 Says:

          Well, I think you are making an error that a lot of ‘think big” futurists make – in that you totally discount the impact of one solar collector. A Book sized collector and an LED the size of a pea are the difference between a kid being able to read and study at night, and not.
          In other words, infinite.
          Likewise being able to charge a cell phone.
          Having the big fridge and the kitchen of the future are not the goal. You make the perfect the enemy of the good.
          For people who survive on a few dollars per day, being able to run a sewing machine or some tools is an enormous step up. Stepping up to community scale prosperity means the ability to add more solar collectors…
          doing the work collectively, which is a natural state of affairs in many third world communities, multiplies the potential benefits.
          Nuclear is a good fit for China, because it requires an enormous, centrally controlled economy, first of all, to make the initially unprofitable investments, and set the rates that people have no choice but to pay – and lastly, because wherever nuclear goes, a huge national security apparatus necessarily follows. (show me an exception)
          Regimes of this kind are prone to corruption, dangerous concentration of political and economic power, and terrorism.
          Meanwhile, the spread of renewables, as this example shows, is proceeding organically, as the price continues to drop. People want it for the same reason they wanted the internet – because it’s empowering, and cool, and they can make money with it. That’s why it’s going to happen, at ever increasing pace.
          By all means, if someone can build and sell a reactor that is safe, and makes sense, and has a sensible payback, go for it. The reason utilities have not gone for it since about 1977 in the US, is not because of greenies, trust me on that one. It’s because of entirely another kind of green, and I have not seen that problem yet solved, even with massive loan guarantees that have been on the table for years now.

  3. danolner Says:

    “Could this be why powerful fossil fuel interests are so afraid of renewable energy?”

    Indeed. Related anecdote: couple of years back, I went on an ‘energy summer school’ for people doing energy-related PhDs (which mine was then!) Groups spent the week coming up with fictional energy projects that would be costable and acceptable to the public. All of them ended up having some participatory, grass-roots element, though all of the schemes required interfacing in part with existing infrastructure, and thus needed utility co-operation.

    At the end of week, discussing feasibility after presentations with one person involved at government level, they thought it highly unlikely anything like our proposals could happen, for the reason you’ve given: they need to work with existing infrastructure providers, and it would be against their interests to properly support community-owned generation.

    That doesn’t, of course, say anything about whether community-level generation is more or less feasible than economy-of-scale generation, but it does help to be realistic about the kind of political limitations that exist. In theory, for example, if a community can create a business plan that works, they could set up their own company and just go ahead and do it. That is happening around the UK here and there: here’s an example from Sheffield.

  4. […] if you haven’t read the post below, on India Leapfrogging the grid, read that […]

  5. As I was watching the video and reading the article I began thinking that I would post this response:

    “Aha – now this is the punch in the nose I’ve been looking for! It’s easy to debate words, but harder to argue with results!”

    But now I can see just how naive and foolish and wrong I am…as evinced by the above comment about nukes. Someone will always find a way to argue with progress when they are entrenched in the old ways. (And I bet I’m about to get a response about the ‘next gen’ nukes…okay, whatever. France’s nuclear program didn’t stop the heat wave from killing tens of thousands.)

    I am truly impressed by programs like these. Empowering women has to be at the core of solving the problems of the third world. Poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, infant mortality, hunger, wellness – they all begin by teaching women and empowering them to pursue a better way.

    More and more it seems like trying to change the old ways will only result in frustration and disappointment. This solar project is the kind of development that brings hope and encouragement.

    Didn’t Einstein say something about needing to think differently in order to solve problems?

  6. […] Remember how third world people “leapfrogged” to connectivity with cell phones? […]

  7. […] I’ve written before on the technological “leapfrogging” that will spread renewable energy like wildfire in among the rural third world poor – just like the cell phone revolution vaulted billions into the technological age without the intermediate step of building huge, expensive and unwieldy networks of transmission wires. The comparison with old style central power plants and 21st century solar and wind is more than apt. […]

  8. […] century in energy development, will be in the developing world.  Solar energy in particular, as I’ve mentioned many times here, is the ideal, quintessential leapfrog technology. The template is there – it’s […]

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