Clean Energy in India: Opportunities for Solar Microgrids

Part two of a series on clean energy in India.

In part one of this series, I introduced solar microgrids as a way for clean energy to reach India’s most rural and remote corners. The benefits of microgrid implementation are manifold, especially given the limitations of traditional grid technology in India. In this post I layout several opportunities these microgrids can provide.

Leverage natural resources to reduce pollution and emissions: Among the alternatives to traditional grid delivery of electricity, solar energy is the most successful to date given India’s high levels of solar intensity (5.5 KWh/m2/day) and the ability to connect to solar energy at the individual, small business, or household level. India’s tropical climate means the nation is well endowed with solar energy potential. Moreover, because solar microgrids would, by and large, replace kerosene and diesel energy usage, it is a much cleaner power source alternative. Solar energy is also renewable and does not emit CO2 into the air supply. The proliferation of solar technology can moderate India’s severe pollution problem and reduce India’s carbon emissions.

Easy installation makes the solution scalable in remote areas: Installation is relatively easy and many are implementing solar energy technology at a small scale. Microgrids have their own energy generation capacity and are not especially complex, so entrepreneurs can construct them with a local team. David Ferris, a reporter for Energy Wire, recounts watching Mera Gao Power install a microgrid in Uttar Pradesh:

A team of four workers from Mera Gao strung lights to about 40 households. They attached the cables along house eaves and through the trees. (In other towns, installers use the abandoned poles of failed government power projects).

After connecting this network to two solar panels and lead-acid batteries, the microgrid was functional. The technology is relatively simple to implement and communities can perform the installation organically. The solar microgrid is designed with local energy provision in mind, implying a smaller and more individualized scale with the capacity to fill in significant and widespread energy voids in the formal grid system. Additionally, local power generation means that energy must travel a smaller distance to reach consumers or beneficiaries, leaving less room for transmission leakages and making the delivery segment of the value-chain less costly.

Allows investment in human capital: From a human development perspective, the advantages of solar microgrids abound. A recent publication of the United Nations Foundation cites potential improvements in all three dimensions of the Human Development Index (education, health, and income) as being correlated with per capita access to electricity. Reduction of personal kerosene usage improves respiratory outcomes for rural households while greater solar energy access can power health clinics in remote areas. A study conducted in Kenya found improvements in education and productivity associated with energy access. Improved literacy rates and increased participation in formal education programs can lead to income-generating prospects for individuals in these villages.

PowerGen Renewable Energy, a firm headquartered in Nairobi and dedicated to delivering alternative energy solutions, has pioneered the implementation of solar microgrid projects in Kenya and Zambia, illustrating what similar projects can achieve for India. One microgrid in Ololailumtia Village, Kenya will provide energy for lighting, refrigeration and a medical clinic to serve 50 beneficiaries. A larger project in Remba Island, Kenya has over 2 kW of solar power, so that hundreds who live on the island no longer have to rely on kerosene, batteries, and generators, which are major sources of pollutants. PowerGen is also using microfinance models, and mobile-metered payment systems to innovate how consumers pay for energy access. Metered payments make it possible for suppliers to build maintenance and operations costs into the monthly fee so that solar microgrids present a viable business venture for local entrepreneurs. The key to these successes is that they function on a small and decentralized scale. Each project serves a relatively small number of beneficiaries but the provision of energy is clean, reliable, and accessible to individuals in remote areas.

Microgrids are small-scale projects that local entrepreneurs can take on, providing new business opportunities and job creation for operators. Beyond providing energy for households, solar microgrids can power small shops, clinics, training centers, and banks. Greater attention to financing solar microgrids can, in turn, build relationships between rural banks and local entrepreneurs. Therefore, the tool has strong implications for improving income-generation, education, and health dimensions for individuals in rural and remote parts of India.

In coming weeks, I’ll detail the challenges and disadvantages for solar microgrid implementation in India, and offer some emerging solutions to these challenges.

Image credit by By Hitesh Vip via Wikimedia Commons.


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