Leading a shift in the narrative on clean energy access in India

November 28, 2016

The last few years have seen rapid growth in India’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) sector with the development of various innovative technical solutions and models. Off-grid solutions have evolved with the falling cost of renewable energy based power and enhanced awareness levels of end-users. This has resulted in the ambitious involvement of private sector players who view their models as superior solutions and are confident enough to use them to enhance energy access. It is pertinent to mention that two distinct parallel solutions are currently prevailing in the rural electrification sector: grid and off-grid.

Rural electrification improves the quality of life for people as well as enabling economic development in rural areas. The supply of electricity to rural areas has been attempted almost exclusively through conventional grid supply by the State utilities. However, progress has remained slow due to the high cost of grid extension to remote parts of India, and limited utility and state budgets for electrification. In 2009-10, the government introduced various programmes and schemes to promote DRE solutions. However, renewable power, still in its nascent stage, was deemed too costly and the technologies were considered unreliable. In fact, these solutions were being promoted as back-up options where grid extension was not possible.

Access to affordable and reliable electricity has been the focus of policymakers for the past several decades. In spite of several policy interventions in recent years, actual performance of rural electricity services continues to be dismal with nearly 237 million people still having no access to electricity (according to the International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2015 report).

We believe that promoting one solution –  either grid power or DRE/off-grid –  over the other, and positioning them as competitors, is likely to hinder progress on rural energy access. To strengthen the argument, one can quote the significant use of back-up systems in urban areas, despite access to “reliable” grid power. Also, historically, rural communities have been using emergency lighting in their homes. Now, with the availability of utility power, mini and micro grid power, and home lighting systems, there is a range of options for connecting people to reliable home lighting solutions.

There is enough evidence to move beyond the distinction between grid power and off-grid power, and to develop an integrated system where cross cutting, innovative solutions work together and help achieve the ultimate goal of energy access. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift towards considering DRE solutions as complementary to the grid, and not in competition with it. Energy access, being the immediate focus, has engaged all stakeholders from the central and state governments, investors, to private developers and consumers. Each stakeholder now needs to understand the importance of an integrated intervention strategy at both the tail-end and the generation side, along with a one track focus on developing and promoting the right solutions for the right applications

What needs to be understood is that the need for power and electricity services exists irrespective of the source and method of supply, and the rural community is ready to accept multiple solutions (as a package) that collectively provide reliable power. Presently, DRE solutions are considered as a subset of the national grid and are emphasized only where the utility grid is absent, whereas both need to work together and complement each other to provide electricity to last-mile consumers. A conducive and collaborative environment for co-existence of the last-mile DRE solutions and grid power could lay the foundations for the efficient achievement of the ‘Power for All’ target of the present government.

Even on the technical front, such an integration makes sense. Decentralized renewable energy solutions range from small household systems, LED lanterns, standalone systems, to micro and mini grids. Small scale, distributed home systems provide an effective and affordable way to tackle the issue of electricity access. Lighting, powering electronic devices and driving induction machines and motors are the three major applications of electricity and these can be covered through small scale distributed home systems. Lighting – being very cost effective using solar based devices – and most electronic devices like TVs, fans, radios etc. – being basically low voltage, direct current (DC) devices – are a good fit with DRE technology solutions. So, DRE solutions, if projected as a superior, flexible and advanced technology, working in parallel with the utility grid could help to facilitate the required changes in the energy access sector, whilst also help to increase electricity network reliability and enhancing renewable energy integration.

With co-existence being the reality, and interactivity of grid and off-grid systems being “the future”, the government and regulators now need to focus on developing an environment for grid and off-grid solutions to co-exist and work together. This will give investors the required assurance on their return on investments and will also ensure that their investments will be valid even after the grid extension.

In order for this ‘shift in narrative’, a change in perception at all levels – government, investors, developers, thinkers and others – is required to set the wheels in motion for this transition and to achieve India’s energy access targets.

by Deepak Gupta, Senior Programme Manager, Power, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation and Saloni Sachdeva, Programme Assistant, Energy Access, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation