Solar micro-grids enable sustainable rural living

Community managed solar micro-grids have the potential to provide reliable and affordable energy access to remote villages in India

Solar micro-grids can transform energy access in the Indian countryside (Photo by Adam Barr)

Over one billion people live without access to energy globally, but despite this, the latest World Energy Outlook paints an optimistic picture about the future. Progress towards global universal electrification is accelerating and India’s “colossal achievements” put the country on course to reach universal electrification by 2030.

To date, India’s remarkable progress has been largely driven by the expansion of the central grid, with a rate of electrification that has doubled since the early 2000s. The Indian government has claimed that 100% of villages are now considered electrified as part of the Dindayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana scheme promoted by the Ministry of Power. Most recently, the Saubhagya scheme aims to extend electricity infrastructure to all households by March 2019. With 46 million rural households still lacking an electricity connection, this will be a challenging task.

Grid connectivity alone cannot be an indicator of development unless usable, affordable and modern supply is ensured. The reliability, quality and duration of the supply from the central grid continues to be a particular problem in the Indian subcontinent, especially in rural areas of the country, which is home to almost 70% of the population. Surveys in some of the most energy poor states highlighted how a large portion of rural electrified households still rely on kerosene lamps as their primary source of illumination, with significant implications on the health and well-being of these communities.

Remote villages are particularly challenging when it comes to provision of reliable and affordable power. By some estimates, the costs of a central grid extension to a remote rural village of around 30 households whose distance from the closest grid line is approximately 5 km could be up to INR 46 (USD 70 cents). This is far higher than the INR 3 (US 4 cent) per unit that an average urban residential consumer pays.

Community solution

In such remote rural areas, community based solar mini-grids (SMGs) have gained popularity and programmes including Smart Power India promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation plan to install over 1,000 solar grids in rural parts of the country. Sustainability of decentralised energy systems benefit from the active involvement and participation of local communities, as it increases the impact and long term success of installations, empowering rural communities, as they become the owners and managers of the plants.

To better understand the impact of these systems and how they can be successfully replicated and scaled, a recent study looked at 24 community-managed SMG implemented by Gram Oorja, a social enterprise working in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Karnataka. Gram Oorja works together with local NGOs to install community-based micro-grids for electricity and drinking purposes, involving the local communities at all stages of installation.

Upfront capital costs are provided through donations, whereas recurring operations and maintenance costs are borne by the community. Each household pays a monthly tariff based on metered electricity consumption, collected by a local operator and deposited in a village bank account. The local operator is also in charge of basic troubleshooting of technical issues and a locally elected Village Energy Committee ensures daily operation of the plant, establishing, setting and enforcing rules and penalties.

Ingredients for success

The study provided key insights on the ingredients for long-term sustainability of these systems. Good quality of supply and strong engagement with local communities are both key. The first is achieved through high quality, durable, reliable and affordable power supply. Setting right expectation with the communities on the level of service ensures satisfaction, willingness to pay and system maintenance.

It is also very important that expectations are set up front, and discussed jointly between community members and all other stakeholders. Consultation with the community from the installation phase should be coupled with on-going interaction and capacity building activities to create and strengthen ability to manage systems locally.

Effective institutional capacity at local level doesn’t happen overnight. Local bodies such as the Village Energy Committees are new in these settings and need time to establish and gain legitimacy in the community. The study also revealed that the presence of functioning women’s Self-Help Groups in the village had a marked positive effect, as it leveraged women’s organisational skills, ensuring more rigorous mechanism for money collection and deposits. The systems also provided quantifiable social and environmental benefits in the areas of education, health, safety, well-being, increased time for productive activities, and a less polluted indoor environment.

Barriers and opportunities

Despite these successes, the study also revealed some barriers. Particularly, very low levels of energy consumption and limited engagement in productive and business activities were detected across all sites, even in systems that had been operational for many years.

The evidence that access to reliable electricity does not organically lead to increased productivity and economic engagement is particularly relevant in the current debate that promotes decentralised energy systems as enablers for economic development of rural areas. This result highlights the need for stakeholders and national governments to think of targeted interventions to ensure communities benefit from energy access beyond the purpose of illumination.

The global development agenda set by the Sustainable Development Goals has a comprehensive mandate, looking at the interconnections between energy, livelihood, water, sanitation and gender issues, among others. To achieve these targets, a more comprehensive and holistic approach to development is required, one that goes beyond the mandate of social entrepreneurs to deliver energy solutions to rural communities, establishing approaches where government agencies, the private sector, local NGOs and residents work together to develop integrated strategies for sustainable rural development.

For better policy practice, it is important to start thinking about comprehensive strategies, those that consider the nexus between multiple development issues, particularly water, energy and food, three of the most challenging requirements faced in India’s villages. Such a holistic approach, where clean energy access is integrated in smarter systems assessing multiple needs of the communities, could not only improve the efficiency of energy use but also provide key additional services that contribute to create better environments for sustainable rural living.