Solar micro-grids and reliable, sustainable energy in rural India

One of India’s biggest development challenges is the delivery of reliable and affordable electricity to every household throughout the country. In recent decades, multiple national programmes have been launched with the goal of extending the electricity grid beyond cities to rural villages, and to provide off-grid alternative sources of electricity to remote, inaccessible villages. These programmes have connected millions of rural households. However, delivering a grid connection to tens of thousands of villages across a largely rural country is a monumental task, and between 240 million to 400 million Indian’s still have no electricity connection.

Even where centralised electricity grid infrastructure has been extended, sustaining the flow of reliable electricity to rural villages has proven to be extremely difficult. Rural areas in many states in India see long hours of planned power cuts every day.

India’s challenge of ensuring the comprehensive provision of electricity is being tackled at the same time as the country looks to increase its use of renewables energy sources, in response to the threat of climate change. This means a conventional approach to electrifying villages and building large fossil-fuel based generation plants is increasingly at odds with India’s environmental objectives.

While few in number in India, solar micro-grids have the potential to be a key technology option that may help India solve the challenge of delivering reliable, environmentally sustainable electricity to rural households in the coming decades. The Government of India recently stated in a draft policy that they foresaw a potential need for up to 10,000 micro-grids to help electrify households in rural areas.

Solar micro-grids are small electricity distribution networks, either self-contained or connected to a centralised electricity grid, which usually has battery storage. In India, the solar micro-grids set-up to date are typically small, low-powered AC or DC systems that connect several dozen households, and provide power for LED lights, mobile phone charging, and in some cases power the use of appliances such as fans, TVs, and radios. Solar micro-grids have become increasingly financially viable in r\s, as solar modules have fallen in price, efficient LED lights have come on to the market, and new cheap smart meters have been developed.

A handful of businesses and social enterprises are currently experimenting with micro-grids in India. They are still trying to perfect the technology involved, and work out business models that can allow them to operate profitably. While most only run a handful of micro-grids at present, one company, Mera Gaon Power, has successfully set-up hundreds of solar micro-grids in un-electrified villages, mostly in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

During a fieldwork trip to India in late-2017, I visited three solar-powered micro-grids which had recently been set-up in rural un-electrified villages in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. They were being run by the Delhi-based social enterprise Boond in three villages in Unnao District, two-hours drive from Lucknow, the state capital.

While high-tension electricity pylons pass through the countryside, near villages, carrying electricity to urban consumers in Lucknow, the villages have yet to be connected with functioning electricity lines. Nearby villages which do have an electricity connection receive no more than the 12 hours of electricity per day.

Boond’s solar micro-grids are connecting several dozen households in each village with a ‘pay-as-you-go’ connection, and are generating enough electricity to power several lights for each household, mobile phones, or fans. In each case, the solar modules for the micro-grid and the control centre have been installed at the house of a local ‘energy entrepreneur’, recruited by Boond. These energy entrepreneurs are tasked with collecting payment from villagers, who pay cash to top-up their meters. Households typically spend several dollars per month on electricity from the micro-grids.

Setting-up and running micro-grids in rural India is challenging. Boond, like many micro-grid companies, is reliant upon grant money for their operations. There are also technological challenges to designing solar micro-grids that can provide larger amounts of electricity to power big appliances such as TVs, fridges, or air conditioning, and to designing micro-grids that can be grid-interactive with India’s national grid.

Yet, solar micro-grids offer the potential for the delivery of basic, reliable, and sustainable electricity in rural India. If businesses such as Boond can work out how to profitably run micro-grids, then a proliferation of micro-grids in the coming years seems certain, and offers the promise of tangible gains in energy access in India.