Big mini revolution

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

energyWe were standing in the only street of this small village called Mohda. Located in the forested region of Chhattisgarh, the village had no access to the road and markets. The women of the village surrounded me. They wanted me to know that malaria was a serious problem for them. They wanted something to be done about it. I was taken aback because we were talking about solar energy—the state government had set up a small power station in the village, and we were there to learn more about it. “What’s the connection?” I asked. Pat came the answer, “Don’t you see that we need fans at night so that we can drive away the deadly pest?” We don’t often notice that electricity is one intervention in the fight against malaria.

“So, why don’t you get a fan—after all, you have a solar power plant in the village?” I asked. Now their anger spilled over. The solar plant provides electricity only for a few hours in the evening and that too enough to light only two bulbs, they explained. Officials were quick to rebut this claim, “All the people in the village have television sets. Many, in fact, have colour TV, which consumes more power. This trips the power plant, and we do not have enough to provide assured energy to all,” they said.

This clearly is not the way to go. The shift to clean solar power is a great opportunity for villages unconnected to the power grid. It brings energy, which in turn, is the starting point for literacy, communication and productive work. But currently, most distributed solar energy programmes are based on giving households a few photovoltaic (PV) panels and efficient light bulbs. This does not meet their aspirational needs. Solar, then, becomes the energy source for the poor, because they are poor. It will never provide the transition for millions living in darkness to power through a non-fossil trajectory.

Chhattisgarh has, in fact, done something different. It has set up solar mini grids in villages rather than provide PV panels to individual households. Under this programme the Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) sets up an array of solar panels at one place and then distributes power to households through a mini-grid. Some 1,400 such systems are in remote villages not connected to the grid. To ensure that they run smoothly, CREDA has hired technicians. It is a pioneering scheme.

So, why the complaints? For one, the plants are small. Demand for energy was assessed 10 years ago; the capacity was based on the requirement of two light bulbs per family. In Mohda, a 4 kW plant was built to meet the lighting needs of 55 families. In neighbouring Rawan a 7 kW plant was planned for 130 CFL bulbs but now there are an additional 150 lights, 25 television sets and 100 mobile phones. This change suggests economic growth and should be welcomed, but officials see the higher use of electricity as “illegal” as the system is not built to provide for growth.

The fact is these systems can be upgraded. That is why mini grids are preferable. But then we need a financial model that can give the poor access to expensive power. At present, the state government pays the full cost of setting up and running the system. It does this by charging a small cess on every unit of grid-based electricity provided to consumers in the state. But while the government pays Rs 45 per household to the local operator to run the system, a household pays only Rs 5 per month, regardless of its consumption. Clearly, this makes the system self-limiting.

This is what happens in grid-based power, where costs are mammoth but get subsidised. The subsidy often hides the inefficiencies of the distributing utilities. This is also the reason governments cannot reach power to the people—the costs are not paid and so the system collapses. In the case of distributed renewable energy, there are no options but to fix this. The capital costs are not insignificant—everything from a power station to the distribution system has to be built. The advantage is that once the system is built, the recovery of electricity bills is easier because the user has a direct and close relationship with the supplier.

My colleagues are proposing two approaches to fix this. In places where the grid will never reach, the capital cost should be subsidised but the operation cost should be paid for based on consumption. This gives incentives to increase supply. In villages where the grid will reach (sooner or later), the cost of the system be paid through a feed-in-tariff, as is done in the case of large solar plants. In this case government pays the differential between the costs of setting up and running the system and the power rate recovered from people. Today the poor pay for energy needs—in these villages we found they spend between Rs 150 and Rs 200 for kerosene just for light. Paying the differential can ensure feasibility. What’s more, the system interacts with the grid. It can sell excess power or buy power and then supply it to the village.

In this way, energy generated in millions of villages can light the homes of millions and many more. This is the revolution we are waiting for.

Opportunities and challenges for solar minigrid development in rural India

Empowering rural India the RE way: inspiring success stories

Need for integrated policy and institutional framework for the implementation of Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in rural areas

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  • Very informative piece. I

    Very informative piece. I would like to highlight one more point. Some private companies, such as SunEdison India and Scatec Solar, have also installed mini solar grids in far-flung villages of India. Villagers are very happy with the solar power. However, the main challenge is solar tariff. At present, the Indian government has no control/regulation/monitoring of tariff of such mini solar grids. The tariff is decided between the villagers and the private company. This is a major issue that needs to be addressed, as more and more private companies come forward to set up mini solar grids in India. Pune-based Prayas Energy Group recently did a report on this. The report is titled Sustainable Development of Renewable Energy Mini-grids for Energy Access: A Framework for Policy Design. I also recently reported on challenges of mini solar grids in India. My article is available on

    I am glad CSE has taken up this important issue of monitoring and regulation of solar mini grids in the country.

    Nidhi Jamwal

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent Editorial Madam. As

    Excellent Editorial Madam. As usual you are thorough with your study on the subject.

    Here is interesting initiative on Solar Mini-Grids for Rural India:

    Designing Solar Mini-Grids for Rural India
    Posted on April 12, 2013 by Richard Engel
    In rural India, despite decades of electrification programs, about 400 million people making up half of all households still do not have access to electricity. SERC has recently joined a consortium of U.S.- and India-based energy experts to assess the feasibility of building solar photovoltaic mini-grids as a solution to the high cost of electrification in remote areas. These systems would each consist of a single solar generation station per village with a distribution network to provide power to all nearby homes and businesses. If successful, this model could be widely replicated at lower cost than providing each home with a stand-alone solar system.
    SERCÔÇÖs role in the project will include performing a literature survey of similar projects that have been installed in other developing countries, an assessment of how Indian energy policy and regulations affect the project, and field studies to estimate energy demand and willingness to pay for electricity in the participating villages. We will provide technical assistance to the rest of the team on several other project tasks.
    The project is jointly funded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and Azure Power of India. San Francisco firm Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) is the lead consultant.(SERC News).


    The projects must adapt to the local conditions, instead of the local people adapting to the
    project. To be successful, projects must respect the local traditions and local leadership
    Local involvement and participation is essential. Local leaders must be involved in the
    decision making and regular meetings with the end-users must be held. The long-term viability
    of the system depends on the usersÔÇÖ satisfaction.
    The parallel creation of economic services improves the sustainability of the project throughout
    the project lifetime and ensures revenues.
    Involve the local community as much as possible and as soon as possible through financial or
    in-kind participation, connection fees, and the village committee.
    Binding contracts are needed to secure local involvement and for the sake of the operation.
    Penalties enforcing this contract are fundamental.
    Flat-fee tariffs with different categories are a good option for less wealthy end-users. The tariff
    rates must supply O&M funds, as well as replacement costs.
    Community-run mini-grids have proved to be successful and this type of organization can have
    many positive impacts on the community itself in terms of self governance and local buy-in into
    the electrification system. However, this approach also needs a long preparation period and
    much technical and social capacity building to compensate the lack of skills and the potential
    for social conflicts. Therefore, the introduction of another partner ÔÇô either private or public ÔÇô to
    take over some aspects is preferable.
    Hybrid models are probably the most interesting, but the hardest to define because they
    combine many different approaches typically used in other models. Hybrid models can be
    quite diverse with changing ownership structures, O&M contracts, and other variables. They
    tend to be very site specific.
    O&M&M are the key components of a financially sustainable project. It has to be planned within
    the business plan from the beginning in order for the project to generate a cash flow sufficient
    to cover these costs. In order to do so, ownership rights and the role of each partner have to be
    very clear.
    Capacity building on technical, business, financing, and institutional aspects of project and
    program development is necessary at every point of the project chain and must include every
    stakeholder. This is unavoidable to maximize the positive effect of rural electrification and to
    ensure sustainability.
    Involvement can take different forms: participation in the initial investment, connection fee,
    monthly payment etc. The disconnection policy has to be very clear and enforced. Finally, the
    involvement of the local personnel responsible of the O&M can be increased by tying salaries
    with performances.
    In order for a project to attract a private actor and/or generate sufficient cash flow for O&M and
    profitability, several options exist:
    Projects can be built around existing business applications or public institutions in order to
    increase critical mass, potential profits, and local involvement. An alternative would be to
    support the development of a local private sector as part of the project to increase the positive
    impacts on the community and generate the needed revenues.

    There are additional measures which lend themselves to be offered to project developers: tax
    credits; low import duties; site surveys; market studies; and capacity-building.
    Solar resources for PV are well known for any location in the world. Developing countries often
    have higher resources than developed countries, where the technology has been massively
    Micro-hydro is the cheapest renewable technology, but the most site dependent, as it requires a
    river with specific flow rate and volume conditions.
    Small wind power technology is site specific and its installation and resources must be carefully
    studied beforehand. However, prices are normally lower than PV.
    The main advantage of PV is that it is suitable for almost any location, though initial costs can
    be more expensive than the other technologies.
    The lifetime of batteries must be maximized as battery costs play a major role in the project
    costs. It is important not to reach often a full SoC between cycles and to avoid prolonged deep
    discharge, but this can be managed by using a diesel generator as a backup.

    ace-to-face questionnaires and exhaustive analysis on consumer demand and willingness to
    pay are a basic requisite
    Oversizing by 30% some components such as the wiring and the converters can easily allow for
    future expansion of the mini-grid.
    Use of battery and use of fuel are closely related, and they keep a balance on the cost structure
    of the project.
    Training of local operators and users is required to ensure that components are used correctly
    and will last the projected lifetime
    The existence of a battery (DC) and its role in the system also affects the decision on current
    type (AC vs DC).
    The existence of a battery (DC) and its role in the system also affects the decision on current
    type (AC vs DC).
    Single-phase distribution grids are cheaper than three-phase and can also allow productive
    uses. However, three-phase grids allow larger uses and the possible of future connection to the
    national grid, but only if the mini-grid has the same technical standards.
    Energy efficiency is a crucial component for the demand side management, the dimensioning of
    the mini-grid and as a consequence, the investment cost and financial viability.
    In many communities, there is a tendency for fading attention to energy efficiency and a strong
    focus on the reduction of short-term investment costs. Hence, there is a need for ongoing
    awareness raising and local availability of energy-efficient appliances.
    The use of diesel gensets normally is minimized as fuel is costly. Genset use ensures the quality
    of service when all other technologies are down or when demand is especially high. Having a
    diesel generator as backup also maximizes battery lifetimeÔÇØ(HYBRID MINI-GRIDS FOR RURAL ELECTRIFICATION: LESSONS LEARNED, prepared by:Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE), Authors: Simon Rolland; Guido Glania, ÔÇó First edition ÔÇô Publication date: March 2011)

    To involve local communities and to provide power for lighting and gas for cooking,tbiogas from Opuntia and agave and subsequent power are the best option. These are care-free growth plants which can be raised in Waste lands. There are many other uses of Agave/Opuntia.
    Agave is a versatile plant well suited for millions of hectares of wastelands in India.

    Agave-derived Renewable Fuels, Products and Chemicals


    Ethanol(1st and 2nd generations),Biobutanol,biomethanol,biojet fiel,green gasoline,biooil,biocrude,biodiesel,biocoal,biochar,H2,syngas,biogas,torrefied pellets and briquettes, drop-in fuels,pyrolysis oil,and biochar.

    Agave syrup(kosher),Powder inulin,healthy sweetners,far substitute(ice cream),bioplastics,cellulose,paper,acids,CO,CO2,biopolymers,pressed boards,geotextiles,fibres,phenols,adhesives,wax,antifreeze,film(food wrap),fertilisers,insulating foam and panes,gel,pectin,non-wooven material9disposable diapers),mouldings,concrete additive,food additives,composite materials,esters,substitute for asbestos, in fiberglass,hydrocarbons,petrochemical precursors, activated coal,secondary metabolites,detergent,glycols,furfurans,resins,polyurethanes,epoxy,aromatics,olefins,paints and lubricants.
    Green electricity
    Pellets and briquettes,syn-gas,biooil,biocoal,biogas,biochar,H2 cells,ammonia,and pyrolysis oil.
    Co2 Sequestering in the soil
    Agave: Competitive Advantages
    1. Uses marginal dry-land (41% of the EarthÔÇÖs surface).
    2. Most Efficient use of soil, water and light.
    3. Massive production. Year-round harvesting.
    4. Very high yields. Very low inputs.
    5. Lowest cost of production among energy crops.
    6. Not a commodity, so prices are not volatile.
    7. Very versatile: biofuels, bioproducts, chemicals.
    8. 100 M tonnes established in the 5 continents
    9. Enhanced varieties are ready.

    Mexico is pioneer in utilising every part of Agave for commercial exploitation. Will India follow? Ours is an agrarian economy. Let us utilise our resources fully so that there will be more rural employment and climate change abatement by providing CAM plants.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • There are several issues

    There are several issues arising out of this concise article. 1. There is the bane of deficit energy audit be it PV electricity PROGRAMMES or Solar heating systems based on flat plate collectors made of copper tubes or nuclear energy programmes. Check out my homepage and discuss. 2. The safety and health audit of energy options. Nuclear programmes because of their deficit energy audits scientifically cannot be an energy option at all because they are leading to extinction of all life, what with their extremely long lived wastes, converting us all into nuclear wastes. 3.Lets be a little realistic for the Indian scenario with its vast reservoir of non-clonally reproducing living energy. When their wastes are returned to where the food came from, via composting toilets or designated defecating areas hygienically used or in the case of diverse trees in recreated forests,leaving the tree droppings at site, we arrive at an infinitely more efficient use of land. See discussion at
    Thus nuclear deals worth trillions of Rupees are totally useless and must be scrapped and funds so saved reallocated in favour of enjoyable use of living energy: Forests are the best photovoltaics and much more: A normal life style integrates all the ways of meeting living needs into a vibrant co-operative living system. See discussion at
    Together with such living systems the PV systems discussed in the CSE article here may become viable.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narian: I

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narian:

    I know this is completely out of the way. I am sorry for that!

    I happened to see video "Moily's metro ride: austerity measure or photo-op?" on NDTV Web site. You were one of the panelists. You looked different from your picture on your Web site, actually much younger. So if you agree, please consider changing your picture on your Web site.

    Thank you very much.

    Sincerely yours'

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ashok , Please

    Dear Ashok ,
    Please explain how one square kilometer of planted tree will provide the 1800 MW of energy.Is it by gasification or any other technique.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply