ATRAULI, India, April 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A
dusty plastic sheet covers a large diesel generator in a corner
of a petrol station in Atrauli, a village in India's northern
state of Uttar Pradesh, a modest but telling sign of progress.
The gas station used to shut at 7 p.m. every day because the
lights would often go off, and there was no way to know when
they would come back on, said Sudhakar Singh, the manager.
"The main power supply was very irregular, and operating the
generator was expensive, so we could not afford to stay open
beyond 7 p.m.," Singh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as
motorbikes and trucks lined up for petrol and diesel.
Last year, the pump got a connection to a solar mini-grid,
a local power network not connected to the national grid, which
guarantees six hours of electricity every day. The pump has
since stayed open all night.
"Now, our expenses are lower and we earn more because we can
stay open all night. We have not used the generator once since
we got the ... connection," said Singh.
Atrauli's electricity revolution is a symbol of the energy
paradox dogging India, one of the world's fastest growing
economies, where power cuts are rampant and per capita
electricity consumption is about a third the global average.
Fast-dropping costs for solar power, combined with plenty of
sun and a huge need for electricity in a country where about 300
million people - a quarter of the population - are still without
it means solar energy has huge potential in India.
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pledge to supply
power to every citizen by 2019 and a surge in solar production,
reaching remote villages remains a challenge, with distribution
losses as high as 30 percent on antiquated lines, low tariffs
and limited use.
Most of those without electricity live in the 99 percent of
villages the government deems to be electrified because at least
10 percent of households and public places have electricity.
But at least half the electrified households do not get at
least six hours of electricity a day.
"While the grid has expanded and we generate enough power,
distribution companies are not in a position to take that power,
and are not interested in going into rural areas," said Aruna
Kumarankandath at the Centre for Science and Environment.
"When the supply is so unreliable, people use it sparingly,
making it an unattractive proposition to invest in," said
Kumarankandath, a renewable energy researcher.
LIGHTS, FANS, ACTION
The situation is particularly dire in Uttar Pradesh, India's
most populous state where only 37 percent of households are
electrified, compared with 67 percent nationwide.
Help has come from private mini-grids like the one in
Atrauli operated by OMC Power, a company with 67 grids in the
Renewable energy is key to India's electrification plan, and
mini-grids with a capacity of 10 to 500 kilowatts (KW) are
playing an increasingly important role.
"Mini-grids use the potential of untapped renewable energy
and manage demand efficiently by generating power at the source
of consumption," said Kumarankandath.
A base home package from OMC Power costs 110 rupees ($1.70)
a month and comes with a switchboard with an LED bulb and a
socket for charging a mobile phone. Additional lights, fans and
even a television can be added.
A 50 KW solar grid with battery storage and a distribution
reach of 5 km (3.1 miles) can power small businesses, schools,
two telecom towers and over 500 homes, said Sarraju N. Rao,
chief technology officer at OMC Power.
"There is enough demand in rural areas. If the supply is
reliable and good, people are willing to pay more," he said.
Uttar Pradesh is the only state with a policy for
mini-grids. It aims to power nearly 20 million households, about
a tenth of its population.
The state offers a 30 percent subsidy for these grids, which
may also be powered by wind, biomass or water, and must
guarantee at least eight hours of electricity to homes, and six
hours for commercial needs.
Importantly, the policy offers exit options when the areas
have adequate grid supply: either the distribution company can
receive energy from the mini-grids at an agreed tariff, or the
project may be transferred to the distribution company.
India's ministry for renewable energy released a national
draft policy for mini- and micro-grids last June.
It aims to deploy at least 10,000 renewable energy projects
in the next five years in "unserved and underserved parts of the
country", with an average capacity of 50 KW per project.
The ambitious targets come at a time when renewable energy
is at a turning point in India, as generating electricity from
renewables costs nearly the same as from conventional sources.
Coal still provides the lion's share of energy, but as a
signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, India is
committed to ensuring at least 40 percent of its electricity
will come from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.
A 10-year blueprint predicts 57 percent of India's
electricity capacity will come from non-fossil sources by 2027.
Solar energy is a particular focus and will contribute 100
gigawatts (GW) of the renewable energy capacity target of 175 GW
"Renewable energy-based mini-grids will boost small
businesses, create local jobs and build economies. This will
improve living standards in villages," said Kumarankandath.
"That in turn will ensure women's empowerment, better health
and education. There cannot be a better development agenda for
the country," she said.
In Atrauli, OMC's mini-grid is just off the main road, next
to the telecom tower it also helps to power. OMC has 280
customers in Atrauli, 60 percent of them commercial, Rao said.
One of OMC's first customers in the village was Anita, a
widowed mother of two, who didn't have an electricity connection
and used kerosene lamps for lighting in her shack.
From one base package of a single light, Anita now has three
lights, one each in her room, her son's room and the kitchen.
"Earlier, the children would have to go search for a light
to study by. But now they study at home, and I can do housework
even at night," she said. "I would like to add a fan next."
($1 = 65.4853 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Astrid
Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more