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Mini-grids to end energy poverty

Thursday, 16 February 2017 | Kota Sriraj | in Oped

Over the past few decades, solar energy has become increasingly relevant due to its reducing costs and social acceptability. Successive Governments have given a solid push to making solar energy a well regarded reality

Energy poverty is a recurring chronic problem in India today, and this is being made worse by the ever-increasing pace of development that is unable to keep a balance between the need to improve human development indicators and the necessity to prevent environmental pollution and ecological destruction.

About two-third of the Indian population is still deprived of modern energy services; according to official estimates nearly 300 million people have no access to electricity and in addition to this, if the three-fourth of rural households connected to the grid that have erratic and less than six hours of electricity supply is included, then about 700 million people in the country suffering from energy poverty.

With this 700 million population, looking for alternative sources of energy such as biomass as the primary energy source for cooking, the risk to health of the people and environmental pollution is suddenly increased manifold. In fact, the estimated economic burden of using traditional fuels, including health and ecological costs is expected to be Rs30,000 crore.

In these trying circumstances, India’s predominant dependence on thermal energy is only making a bad situation worse. Currently, coal meets more than 50 per cent of the current commercial energy needs and generates more than 70 per cent of our electricity. India is the third largest producer of coal in the world, after China and the US. But this form of energy comes at a huge environmental and health cost and cannot (also must not) be a long-term sustainable solution to India’s energy needs. Given these challenges, India must quickly chalk out a strategy to sustainably cater to its burgeoning energy demand in an ecologically safe manner that is also in conformity to the health requirements of the people.

Over the past few decades, solar energy has become more and more relevant due to its reducing costs and social acceptability. Successive Governments have given a solid push to making solar energy a widely accepted reality making the cost of solar energy come down by nearly two-thirds. For instance, in Delhi, while the power distribution companies charge eight rupees per unit of conventional power, solar photovoltaic are able to supply renewable and green energy for a compelling five rupees per unit.

This can set a sound base for developing solar power as the energy resource that can power a cleaner future. But for this to be come a reality, the efforts will have to be concentrated in the rural and peri-urban areas first, as these regions currently suffer the most on account of severe energy deficiency.

The initiative to introduce renewable power grids must inspire confidence and enthusiasm in the target region and its population and for that to happen, the planned grids must be efficient, successful and easier to manage. Therefore, the size of the grids is of paramount importance — the smaller it is, easier it is to manage and run. In order to achieve this in a systematic and time-bound manner, there is an express need convey the Central policy and guidelines on mini-grids to various State Governments, enabling them to set up their own initiatives.

For instance, Uttar Pradesh became the first State in February 2016, to announce its own mini-grid policy under which private players were encouraged to set up mini grids that could generate up to 500 kW of energy and supply the same to households in a particular geographical area. However, the initiative has not been able to capture the imagination of other states, as many more states in India with far better capability and availability of social entrepreneurship have failed to create an environment conducive to the growth of mini-grids.

The failure of most mini-grids to make a dent in the rural area is mainly due to the bureaucratic delays in sanctioning such projects. Besides, social impediments and technical hurdles too discourage enthusiastic developers from coming forward. The Government must understand that it is impossible to have a healthy acceleration in the mini-grid projects while such challenges apply brakes on the progress and dissuade enthusiastic developers. The potential grid developers must also be insulated against competitive environment at least in the initial gestation period of an operational mini-grid. This will enable the developer of mini-grid to protect his or her initial investment besides making the grid viable, moreover it will also send the right signal across the community that the government intends to nurture mini-grids and help make them profitable.

Mini-grids can finally help bring equality between rural and urban India and wipe out energy poverty, provided the concept is systematically and comprehensively applied across the nation.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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