What Can Renewable Energy Technologies Do for Rural India?
The future of India’s economic growth depends largely on reliable energy sources and infrastructure. Unfortunately, we are currently suffering from an energy shortage. And it is only expected to increase unless we work to develop affordable renewable energy technologies (RETs) and start using manageable and available resources whenever possible.
This is especially true in India’s rural communities, where insufficient infrastructure and rapidly increasing demand are hindering already low energy supplies. As a country, we can no longer leave these areas in the dark.
India’s energy shortage
A recent report by Mahindra’s Centre for Rural Information and Insights identified our energy problems, as well as regions in India where RETs are successfully creating opportunities for future growth in sustainable energy development.
They report that India is currently facing an energy shortfall of 10.3 percent – 15.4 percent during times of peak demand. And as the economy and population grow, India’s energy needs will only get steeper.
Why is this happening?
The Centre for Rural Information and Insights continues by spotlighting several areas of concern:
- Energy consumption is on the rise for everyday necessities in rural India. Energy was once used primarily for cooking in rural communities. Today, however, an increasing percentage of households rely on it for pumping drinking and irrigation water, lighting and heating homes, and powering electronics.
- Domestic consumption for leisure/entertainment is increasing due to an increase in energy-based entertainment and communication devices, such as computers and televisions.
- Agricultural subsidies and initiatives encourage increased energy consumption. Though its relative share of energy consumption is falling, agriculture is consuming more and more energy in absolute terms. At 22 percent of total energy consumption, it is the third-largest consumer of power in India. Subsidies and initiatives – such as programs that offer free electricity for farmers or place emphasis on irrigation through pump sets – have contributed to increased consumption.
- Government regulations can lead to inefficient providers. Independent providers, such as Rural Electric Cooperatives, now face strict regulations from the government and must contend with increasing prices or decreasing quality.
- Inadequate infrastructure cannot support increased demand. Even when power is available, it isn’t always getting to houses and businesses in rural India. Energy audits have shown that a great deal of energy is lost in transmission due to sub-standard power equipment, such as transmission lines.
A move toward alternative energy sources
Over the last few decades, many governmental and private-sector agencies have put significant effort into developing alternative solutions using RETs, such as solar, wind, hydel (water), waste, and bio-mass. Several states are even paving the way for India’s future by promoting the generation of renewable energy – Gujarat is pioneering solar energy, Tamil Nadu is exploiting wind, Himalchal Pradesh is building small hydros, and Punjab and Haryana are leading in biomass.
The central government has implemented several rural energy programs to help rural areas achieve more reliable electricity and better meet their increasing energy requirements. Key programs include:
- Integrated Rural Energy Programme, to meet minimum domestic energy needs through a cost-effective mix of various energy sources, with options for meeting the requirements of sustainable agriculture and rural development with a focus on environmental considerations and renewable energy.
- National Programme for Improved Chullahs, to provide portable, efficient chullahs (ovens) to rural families and communities. These chullahs conserve 30-40 percent of fuel wood and release less smoke.
- Biogas-based Distributed/Grid Power Generation Programme, to make natural energy available for small-capacity activities like cooking. Biogas can be produced from waste from animals, forestry, rural industries like agro and food processing, and even kitchens.
- The Wind Resource Assessment Programme, to catalyze the commercialization of on-grid wind power by providing monitoring and wind mapping. So far, 31 states and union territories have been covered by 1,244 wind monitoring and mapping stations, and 233 potential sites for wind farms have been identified.
- Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, to generate 20,000 MW of solar energy by 2022. Progress will unfold in three phases with targets that build upon each other.
Renewable energy initiatives in remote villages
For rural India, RETs are not just good for the environment – they also bring power to areas left out by conventional energy sources. By generating power at the point of consumption, remote villages can bypass the need for distribution infrastructure. This means that previously unreachable areas can get electricity for the first time – and without the energy losses that plague conventional transmission lines.
In many ways, perhaps the best approach is to start small. Each village can employ a people-centric approach to integrating RET, with restoration and conservation of the existing micro-ecosystem in mind. After all, each region is unique; what works for one may not be the most logical option for another. This is already happening in villages across India:
- Orissa. 162 households in the Koraput district enjoy solar lanterns, thanks to a unique joint initiative between D light Design, a solar lantern manufacturer, Beyond Solar, an American nonprofit, and the Southern Orissa Volunteer Association, a local NGO that has sponsored solar installations.
- Jharkhand. Village Nurda, in the Jhinkpani block of the West Singhbhum district of the state, has transformed the quality of life of 1,800 tribal villagers by installing a 16KW solar photovoltaic power plant by JREDA under the Remote Village Electrification Programme.
- Gujarat. Vavdi and Vaddithar, two villages in the Patan district, are currently operating under the Village Energy Security and Remote Village Electrification Programme.
- Chhattisgarh. With coordination from the Chhattisgarh Biofuel Development Authority, remote villages in Kawardha are using biofuels to generate energy.
- Uttar Pradesh. The Non-Conventional Energy Development Agency has successfully installed solar photovoltaic technology-based systems to operate computers in 10 primary schools in the district of Lakhimpur Kheri.
These are just a few examples of ongoing initiatives to expand the use of RETs throughout India and particularly in the rural areas, where connectivity and substandard equipment may both be of concern.
Is there a future for renewable energy in India?
Our energy needs will continue to increase. And it is critical that citizens, the government, and businesses continue working together to map out a future for India that keeps renewable energy as a nationwide priority.
The first step is to develop an infrastructure that can meet our evolving demands and grow with us as we pursue solutions that involve renewable energy. Prohibitive costs mean that unless we take action, we may never see the level of “off grid” energy generation we desire. We need to commit to reducing the cost and exploring financing and other means to support and create an off-grid infrastructure. Only off-grid generation will help to further reduce India’s dependency on imported energy sources and maximize economic growth.
What are you doing to close the energy gap? Whether it’s big or small, please tell us about it below.