Lighting Up Lives: Initiatives to bring solar power to towns and villages

Initiatives to bring solar power to towns and villages

India is witnessing a rapid rise in electricity demand. The International Ener­gy Ag­­­­en­cy estimates that electricity de­mand will grow at 5 per cent each year until 2040, representing a 100 per cent inc­rease over existing levels. Adding to this concern is the fact that about 13 per cent of India’s population does not have access to grid-connected electricity. To meet this growing demand and need for electrification, solar energy has a vital role to play. By 2030, solar technologies pair­ed with battery storage will become competitive with the existing coal-fired power plants. In view of this, the government has taken several initiatives to integrate solar technologies in meeting its development goals.

Solar cities

In 2008, as a part of the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) launched the Develop­me­nt of Solar Cities scheme. The program­me was modified in 2014 in line with the new renewable energy targets and under the initiative, the MNRE announced that 60 cities, including five pilot cities and 13 model cities, would be declared as “solar cities”. The conventional energy demand in each of these cities was to be reduced by 10 per cent in five years and this was set to be achieved by both improving po­wer supply from renewable energy sour­ces in the city as well as adding energy efficiency measures such as battery storage. Further, depending on the need and resource availability in the city, wind, biomass, small hydro, waste-to-energy, etc. could be explored along with possible energy efficiency measures. By providing road maps and master plans for each city, the centre aimed to encourage the res­pe­c­tive local administrations to take initiative. The centre also offered financial assi­s­tance of up to Rs 5 million per city depe­n­ding on the population and initiatives taken by the city administration. Cities, in turn, would have to submit biannual reports highlighting their progress.

Initially, the programme made moderate progress in terms of mobilising funds and developing capacities. By 2018, in model and pilot category cities, solar PV projects with an aggregate capacity of about 9 MW and a solar water heating system with an aggregate capacity of 7,894.5 m2 collector area were sanctioned. Further, master plans for 50 solar cities were prepared, stakeholder committees were constituted in 21 cities and solar city cells were created in 37 solar cities. However, the funds sanctioned by the centre slowed down considerably. In 2016, Rs 670 million was approved by the MNRE but over the next two years, only an additional Rs 416 million was approved. This amount is a far cry from what is required to meet the sc­he­me’s goals. After reviewing the respective states’ progress, the programme was discontinued as the country entered the Thirteenth Five Year Plan period.

Following the discontinuation of the programme, the government has offered little clarity as to whether the respective road ­maps and master plans will be carried forward. However, with the country pushing towards developing a global manufacturing base for solar-powered technologies, solar cities can improve prospects. In July 2020, the centre requested all states and union territories to identify one city each out of a national list of 60 cities, whose entire electricity needs would be met th­ro­u­gh rooftop solar power. In addition, to help meet the countries’ solar rooftop targets, which are severely lagging, the plan is aimed at creating demand for solar equip­ment such as ingots, wafers, cells and modules. This creation of demand is vital if India has to establish a competitive domestic manufacturing industry. In the following years, a senior district official or a representative from the respective state distribution companies will be nominated for each selected city wherein rooftops may also be leveraged for the commercial, industrial, institutional and government sectors. Additionally, off-grid solar applications such as street lights and large gr­ound-mounted solar plants may be developed on public land. These projects would be set up through the renewable energy service company model.

Solar villages

It can be argued that solar power has a bigger reach in villages as it can bring electricity to regions that have previously had little to no access. The introduction of solar home systems and solar lanterns to rural areas can be a cost-effective solution to electrify villages, at least in the short run. A recent study by the Massa­ch­u­setts Institute of Technology on 22 rural households in India found that off-grid solar sources gave them access to basic lighting and charging needs and in some cases they could even run income-generating businesses from their homes. No­ta­bly, the study also found that people tend to adopt solar devices when it is endorsed by those they trust. This highlights the im­portance of awareness, especially in rural areas of the country, and calls for targeted policy interventions.

The MNRE, in 2007, launched the Remote Village Electrification Programme for the electrification of remote villages/habitations using solar energy. The programme was designed to provide financial support for the electrification of those remote unelectrified census villages and unelectrified ha­mlets of electrified census villages where grid extension was not feasible. Between 2007 and 2014, the programme was successful in electrifying 10,318 remote villages. However, as coverage under the programme declined over the years due to a reduction in central financial assista­nce, it was discontinued in 2014. Three ye­ars later, in October 2017, the Ministry of Power launched the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana – Saubhagya to achieve universal household electrification across the country. The scheme en­visaged last-mile connectivity and elec­tri­city connections to all remaining unelectrified households in rural areas. Notably, the scheme includes the provision of solar-based stand-alone systems to provide electricity to unelectrified households in remote and inaccessible villages/habitations. In addition to the­se schemes, the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) and the Off-grid and De­cen­tralised Solar PV Applications Sche­me: Phase III will help improve rural electrification through solar energy.

Many states have launched schemes to electrify villages. Most notably, Goa, in May 2021, launched its own Remote Vill­age El­ec­trification programme in collaboration with Convergence Energy Servi­c­es Limited (CESL). Similar initiatives have also been taken by Jharkhand and Bihar. Electricity access has always been a pressing concern in rural parts of Bihar with as much as 40 per cent of the population living without power. Having high solar irradiation, the state has great potential for off-grid solutions to power rural households. Therefore, it is no surprise that Dharnai, a small village near Bo­dhgaya in Bihar, was declared the first “solar village” in 2014. The project was ca­rri­ed out by Greenpeace along with the Centre for Environment and Energy Deve­lopment and livelihood promotional institute BASIX for Rs 30 million. The system has a capacity of 100 kW and powers 450 homes, 50 commercial operations, 60 street lights, two schools, a training centre, and a healthcare facility. It also has battery backup that ensures electricity is available round the clock.

The past few years have seen the development of quite a few solar villages, mostly developed by NGOs or smaller organisations. In 2016, Chhotkei village in Odi­sha was declared a solar village with the setting up of a 30 kW nano grid by SunMoksha. Si­milarly, Irumbai village in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu, was declared a solar village in 2019. The village was powered by a 170 kW gr­ou­nd-mounted solar system and had solar street lights. Additionally, solar-powered lamps, fans and other appliances were pro­vided to households. In another instan­ce, Madhya Pradesh’s Bancha village witnessed the solarisation of all household kitchens in a project carried out by IIT Bom­bay and ONGC.

More recently, in August 2021, the Guja­rat government developed a 6 MW solar power plant with integrated battery storage to power Modhera village in the sta­te. In Modhera, homes will generate po­wer through rooftop systems. The solarisation project was developed using a Rs 650 million grant by the MNRE. While the project arguably represents the bigg­est village solarisation initiative in the co­un­try so far, it only represents a drop in the oc­ean with respect to meeting rural electrification needs. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that considerable funds were provided by the central and state governments in rural solarisation and more such initiatives are necessary.

The way forward

The solar cities programme and the initiatives to solarise villages represent two unique developmental challenges in In­dia. While the first involves meeting the ever-in­creasing demand of the urban po­pu­lation, the second looks at solar power as a means to provide electricity to regi­ons that have no access. India committed about Rs 980 billion for the smart cities programme, which includes solar power development, but there is no mention of any such fund for remote villages. While the solar cities programme is expected to be revived with the smart cities initiative, rural electrification runs the risk of being ignored.

Even with the existing mini-grid projects in Indian villages, the cost of system maintenance is far too much for residents to afford. Further, with the battery being the most expensive component of the solar system, replacing it post its lifespan be­comes extremely difficult. This highlights the need for a shift in priorities and inc­reased government support to meet the energy requirements of those who need it the most.

By Rithvik Kumar