India’s Solar Revolution – Small Is Big

November 16, 2012

Sierra Club:

Let’s start with hard reality: The grid is never coming to rural India. No matter what ‘very serious policy-makers’ want to believe, decades of attempts and huge gains in supply have yielded little increase in electrification. More importantly, off-grid solar installations have been dramatically cheaper than grid extensionfor a while because they compete with the huge costs of extending the grid and the huge costs of diesel and heavily polluting kerosene. That’s why the future ofrural electrification is decentralized clean energy something even the very serious IEA recognizes.

But it’s not just the IEA that gets this; politicians are catching on as well. Take Nitish Kumar the chief minister of Bihar whose sole political platform is delivering energy access to the 100 million people of Bihar. To achieve this lofty goal (only 18% of the population currently has access) Bihar’s going to need a distributed clean energy revolution because coal-gate has deepened the already immense problems of the coal sector making the possibility of a coal-fired future impossible. If Kumar wants to remain in office, he has to rely on distributed solar.

And, of course, distributed grid tied installations reduce peak load which can help avoid blackouts. You know, like the historic one India just suffered. In short, distributed is the way to go.

The US finally got around to totaling our solar installations and we were surprised at what we found. All those small scale distributed installations financed by third parties like Sungevity have added up to something really big — 2.5 GW, which represents about 70% of all US installations. So here’s a lesson for all those who love ‘scale’: Small is big.

19 Responses to “India’s Solar Revolution – Small Is Big”

  1. […] Sierra Club: Let’s start with hard reality: The grid is never coming to rural India. No matter what ‘very serious policy-makers’ want to believe, decades of attempts and huge gain…  […]

  2. I live off grid in a rural part of Spain. Seven years ago we installed a solar system with battery storage which cost at the time €15000, but as we did not have 24hr electricity prior to that, we estimate it added much more than the cost to the value of the house.

    At the time we were the first in the area to install solar now there are at least 10 of the 15 or so houses in fields around, who have solar and or wind turbines (2). Nobody counts this output but it must be replicated in many other areas.

    There is small scale, private energy revolution slowly and quietly taking place and this is without any FITs.

  3. […] Sierra Club: Let’s start with hard reality: The grid is never coming to rural India. No matter what ‘very serious policy-makers’ want to believe, decades of attempts and huge gain…  […]

  4. mspelto Says:

    Just like India never built a line based phone system they leapfrogged technologically right to cell phones, here they can leapfrog some of the comprehensive infrastructure build out by going to a distributed system.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      this will happen, because the technology simply dictates it.

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      You can imagine the incredulity that a naysayer back in the late 1970’s would have expressed when told that his clunky $1,000 mobile phone would someday not only be the size and weight of a pack of cards,but that it would have data, video,and computational abilities to far surpass that day’s current mainframe computers,and on top of that,they would be widely owned and used by some of the poorest people on the planet.
      The pushers of fossil fuels exist in a bubble world view that is rapidly becoming obsolete,despite their herculean efforts to convince us otherwise.

  5. Martin Lack Says:

    Hi there, Peter.

    I am very pro-renewable energy (mainly because it is not finite). However, I am also pro-physics (and often go on about things like Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Therefore, I would be very interested to know how you would respond to the detailed examination of this subject provided by someone whose detailed analysis of our energy and economic crises I very much admire.

    Clearly, there is great scope for people to reduce their consumption of energy but, since domestic use typically accounts for only 30% of total electricity consumption, that leaves us needing an awfully large area to be given over to renewable energy generation to power our economies.

    I really would like to think that Schalk Cloete (i.e. One in a Billion blog), is wrong somehow but, sadly, I cannot see any logical flaws in his arguments. I would also love to know what Dr Amory Lovins would make of his arguments.

    Yours hopefully,


    • greenman3610 Says:

      this is pseudo intellectual sophistry, and Germany is the existence proof that a renewable economy is possible, and desirable.
      The cost per unit of electricity in Denmark, for instance, is irrelevant – the cost that the consumer cares about is their monthly bill – and since the average consumer there uses 2 and a half times less than say, an American, a
      higher electric rate is meaningless, and the nation continues to prosper – in fact,
      poll after poll makes its people the happiest on earth, and Forbes named it the number one place to do business twice in the last 5 years.

      the cost graph produced in your link is simply empirically wrong. check energy prices in the real world

      Click to access Lazard-June-11-Levelized-Cost-of-Energy-and-proj-to-2020-copy.pdf

      wind is more recently second to natural gas in cost for new energy – but the bubble in gas prices is illusory, unless you assume gas producers are willing to go on losing money indefinitely.

      the brain dead analysis of solar prices neglects that solar is taking off in areas of the US where it is competing heads up- not, at this stage, against base load coal or nuclear, but in the much more lucrative peaking market, with peaking power going for triple, quadruple or more than base load cost, where solar prices, still higher than fossil but dropping, are very competitive in, because electric demand peaks when the sun is shining brightest.

      Naturally, as demand grows, prices continue to fall, while coal continues to rise (forget nuclear – dead, and staying dead barring some unforeseen magic)
      You can argue about how far in the future those lines cross – 2 years, 5 or 10, but they will cross, and when they do, we will see a revolution that will happen like the internet revolution of the early 90s, with blinding speed.

      this kind of thing reminds me of the old saw about aeronautical engineers who prove that bumblebees can’t fly.
      It’s like technicians from the 1980s “proving” the current computer revolution is impossible, because there’s not enough floppy discs to store all the data. It’s just misleading and irrelevant crap.
      You don’t have to believe me, and frankly, I don’t give a damn. Just watch Germany.
      see today’s post

      • Martin Lack Says:

        Peter, thanks for taking a look at Schalk Cloete’s website. Before being rude about him and his analysis, I think you really should have taken on board that he is not an apologist for either the fossil fuel industry or our modern consumerism (quite the opposite). Therefore, I do not think you do yourself any favours by appearing to be so defensive. As I said, I am not anti-renewables; I am just bemused by Schalk’s assertion that the energy conversion ratio of renewable systems is so low that we can never hope to meet all our needs using them alone.

        Can you confirm that you accept the basic premise that our modern industrial society has only been made possible by the highly concentrated, abundant, and cheap energy derived from fossil fuels?

        Do you accept that Germany has been so successful in promoting renewable energy that it is now limited by the capacity of its distribution network; and that,by closing down its nuclear plants, it has been forced to rapidly expand coal-fired generation?

        Apart from demand reduction, do you have an answer to the assertion about that – unless we commit to the wholesale industrialisation of all undeveloped land not in productive agricultural use – we simply do not have the space to generate humanity’s electricity needs from renewable energy alone?

      • Schalk Says:

        Hi, just a few points for clarification:

        1. I am not against renewables. The first page starts off by stating that renewables can carry our civilization into an era of sustainable prosperity and, in the third page of that series, I advocate that all well-off people should strive for energy-independence through consumption reductions, efficiency enhancement and local renewable energy generation.

        2. I have no problem with the technical feasibility of renewables – my only problems are with the economics, especially when you consider the immense scale of this challenge and the very short timeframe within which it must be dealt with.

        3. The point I am trying to make in these pages is that we cannot count on renewables to save us from climate change while the economy keeps on growing. CO2 levels will probably pass 450 ppm in the mid 2030’s by which time renewables (except hydro) are projected to contribute less than 5% of the total energy mix by most studies. Even if all of these experts are off by hundreds of percentage points in their projections, renewables still won’t make any meaningful impact on climate change.

        4. In addition, when you take into account the realities of our totally over-leveraged and massively unbalanced global economy and combine this with the cultural mindset of consumerism and entitlement that has taken over developed nations, the pursuit of renewable energy as a means of continued “green” economic growth just does not make sense to me.

        5. Like everything else on my blog, these pages are simply arguments for taking personal responsibility for cutting personal carbon and ecological footprints in a manner that automatically results in happy, healthy and wealthy living. My argument is simply that environmentalists should advocate such personal lifestyle changes rather than what I (as an research scientist working in the field) can only see as a completely unrealistic plan to revamp the largest and most important industry in the world in time to mitigate climate change (without crashing the global economy).

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      Martin,I would also like to know what Dr. Amory Lovins would make of these arguments.Have you read Dr. Lovins Reinventing Fire? I have it on my wish list,but have not read it yet.His TED talks seem very grounded in real world solutions,and his book is supposed to be peer reviewed if I recall correctly.
      He seems to have a much more optimistic view of the future (that is,if we get our act together,and start taking this crisis seriously).

      • Martin Lack Says:

        Thanks for that suggestion, skepticmac57. I heard about the book a few weeks ago, after watching a 2007 Nova documentary that SKY re-broadcast here in the UK on the PBS America channel. I was so impressed, I blogged about it.

        However, in the hope that I may get an answer without having to read the entire book, I have also posted a near-identical comment on the Facebook page of the Rocky Mountain Institute. (I tried and failed to submit a comment via their website).

        To me, the question about energy conversion efficiency and land usage should be easy to answer; but it seems improbable that simply moderating our demand for electricity will be sufficient to resolve the problem. Presumably, therefore, we are left relying on renewable technology becoming more efficient.

  6. greenman3610 Says:

    “large amounts of land for renewables”
    Ever seen any aerial shots of tar sands development, which will render toxic forever an area of canadian boreal forest the size of florida? The same kind of development is now coming to the US, and other lucky locations around the planet.
    How about pics of fracking access roads and pads in Pennsylvania?

    Meanwhile, cows graze under wind turbines as farmers get double and triple value out of energy producing land in wind farms.
    I do not intend to spend large amounts of my time tracking down the assumptions in an article that prominently displays energy cost estimates that I know to be false. I prefer to stick to credible sources.

  7. […] Sierra Club: Let’s start with hard reality: The grid is never coming to rural India. No matter what ‘very serious policy-makers’ want to believe, decades of attempts and huge gain…  […]

  8. […] an attempt to promote discussion of this, I posted a link to it on Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock  of the Week (with some interesting results). […]

  9. stephengn1 Says:

    I know this is an old post, but some of the people commenting on this one are disgusting. Myron Ebel clones

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