Census 2011 throws light on the darkness across India. Of the 246 million households, 67 per cent get electricity from the grid, while 31 per cent have no option but to use kerosene lamps. In 2001, government initiated a nationwide programme to provide off-grid, clean alternatives, mostly solar, in remote areas. Solar has now lit up more than a million homes —a 100 per cent increase since 2001—though the programme has its share of loopholes. This situation presents both challenges and opportunities. The answer to the country’s energy poverty could lie in decentralised solar.
Joel Kumar, who assessed the programme’s performance, says the case for off-grid solar is clear and urgent. Ankur Paliwal carries out a reality check in Uttarakhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and Sayantan Bera in Assam
Even 65 years after Independence, more than a million families in India live in darkness after sunset. Neither the electricity grid reaches them nor do they have the money to invest in alternative sources of energy. A much larger section of the population, nearly half the rural India, connected to the grid suffers from erratic supply. They depend on kerosene to address their power needs. But kerosene is heavily subsidised and there are huge leakages in the system.
To eliminate the dependency on kerosene, over a decade ago the government started a programme to offer off-grid solutions at subsidised prices. Under the Remote Village Electrification Programme (RVEP), the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) offers a solar home lighting system (SHS).
It is a simple kit consisting of one or two CFLs, a solar panel, a battery and a solar charge regulator. For many, SHS was godsend. It saved them the expenditure on kerosene to get four-five hours of electricity a day. The programme has by now covered nearly 9,000 villages against a target of 18,000 and encountered a number of problems. The biggest is poor aftersale service, followed by malfunctioning batteries and CFLs. The Centre cannot monitor everything, defends the ministry. “We rely on state renewable energy agencies to ensure proper functioning of the programme,” says Gireesh Pradhan, secretary of MNRE.
The solar initiative is not restricted to the government. NGOs and private institutions are also offering expensive lighting options and financial help. For instance, Aryavart Grameen bank in Uttar Pradesh has provided loans for home lights to 50,000 families; the Exhibition Road in Patna is touted as the world’s largest market for solar equipment; and SELCO (Solar Electric Lighting Company) in Karnataka is the energy solutions provider for 135,000 rural families.
The entry of non-government players signifies scope for growth in the off-grid solar sector. At a price tag ranging from Rs 8,000 to Rs 13,500, SHS sounds expensive, but this is just one-time investment. A family using kerosene lamps spends Rs 250 every month, whereas an SHS lasts at least 10 years. This means even an expensive system costs a little more than Rs 100 a month.
Such models offer hope for the country’s power woes but are limited in their reach, while RVEP is seen only as a stop-gap arrangement till the grid reaches remote areas. It does not have to be so; mini-grid solar can show the light. This is the opportunity for the future.