Ending energy poverty in India is part of tackling climate change

April 20, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Energy for all
Is vital in India
Can outsiders help?

NGOs don’t often talk about energy poverty and they should. Electricity means kids are more likely to do their homework; dirty energy for cooking fills the houses of the poor with smoke and does terrible damage to health. Two recent items in my inbox brought this to mind. Firstly a post on the the excellent new blog Political Climate:

‘Climate negotiations tend to focus on whether countries such as India can be persuaded to take on some form of quasi-binding emissions limitation target. Our view is that it would be far better to engage in a technology-specific negotiation. With 300 clear sunny days per calendar year, solar is the obvious priority (although there would and should be others). So the key India question is; what can international cooperation achieve in dramatically reducing the unit cost of electricity from solar?

Until the climate negotiations or other global processes focus in on the aspects of the debate that really matter to the political economy of major emitters (and those with the potential to become so, which is how India would see itself), they are unlikely to be moved. Why would they be?’

That arrived about the same time as email from our office in New Delhi, reporting a discussion on some new research from the Vasudha Foundation “Shifting of goal posts: rural electrification in India” (can’t find a URL for the paper, but would love to receive it).

In India, 54% of rural households have no access to electricity. Progress on electrification in rural areas has been very slow over the last two decades. Kerosene is the main source of energy used for lighting in rural households without access to electricity.

let the sun do the cooking

let the sun do the cooking

Even in the rural villages with electricity, supply is very limited, from 3 to 6 hours a day (in the villages surveyed for the research). Most of this supply comes at night (sometimes even after 10 p.m., so not very useful). Quality of the supply is also an issue, as voltage varies a lot (which can damage equipment, especially pumps used for irrigation). As a result, many villages prefer diesel irrigation pumps and are using electricity only as a back up system.

Vasudha Foundation is calling for a shift from a centralized production model (i.e. villages connected to a grid where electricity is produced by massive power plants using coal or nuclear) to a decentralized model, based on small units at village level using renewable energies (solar, micro-hydro, wind, bio-mass).

Nice idea, but can it work? The seminar gave a mixed answer for the following reasons (in no particular order):

Centralised versus decentralised is not the right question. Villages need both and both systems can complement one another. Production of electricity at village level based on renewables needs to be connected to the grid to be a sustainable business model (capacity to sell electricity surplus when too much production and capacity to get electricity from the grid when generation falls). That means that the power purchase agreements between the firms managing the grid and the small units at village level are very important. In India, this market is weighted against small/decentralized production units.

Each kind of renewable has its own problems: solar needs large storage capacity; micro hydro is often seasonal (example in India of villages in Himalayas getting micro hydro during part of spring, and summer and autumn but nothing during winter time, as rivers/streams are frozen); bio-mass is renewable and year-round but comes at a cost.

Massive scale up of small-scale renewables will only happen if it is seen as a successful business model. There’s evidence that is happening, notably, beginnings of mass production of really reliable, robust, bright and cheap – hence desirable – solar lanterns.
However – in India at least – renewables face unfair competition. Electricity generated from coal or nuclear (nuclear is marginal in India, anyhow) is heavily subsidised.

In India, both the government and the private sector (despite what they claim) are not really solar power in Indiainterested in a model of decentralised renewable energy. The private sector would be interested if it was making a profit, meaning if these systems were connected to the grid to sell surplus and these surplus were bought at an adequate price. Interest from the government is more in large units using renewables rather than small scale village level production.

However, most people in rural India are happy to pay for access to quality energy. So solutions could be explored. But problems of scale will remain.

Putting the two together, could the international community do more to help turn small scale renewables into a viable business proposition in India? For more background, see Greenpeace’s ‘Energy [r]evolution: A Sustainable India Energy Outlook’. The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy had a conference on this in New Delhi in February – skimming the presentations they seem to focus on technologies, acceptability issues and finance. Finance is crucial and Indian organisations like Selco have been pioneers in advocating wide-ranging financing reforms, from micro-credit to the willingness of banks to lend to energy entrepeneurs. Why not earmark international carbon finance (e.g. the Clean Development Mechanism) for a massive international push to provide mass-produced efficient stoves and solar lanterns? But before we get too captivated by technical solutions, maybe we should look further at the public policy issues that may be behind the reluctance to act.  

Anyone got other info on what’s already happening?

April 20, 2010
Duncan Green