India Looks to Solar Electricity to Power Remote Villages

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Amit Dave / Reuters

Solar-power generation, aided by new projects like this plant in Gujarat, is increasing rapidly in India

Meerwada has long hewed to the sun’s schedule. The village of 400 in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state lies 70 km from the nearest town, and until last year it was not supplied with power. Daily chores were completed between sunrise and sunset, or else by the light of polluting kerosene lamps. “Our village has never had electricity,” says Daulat Ram, Meerwada’s village head. “We struggled without it.”

Now Meerwada doesn’t just live by the sun, it harnesses it. SunEdison, a California-based solar-power-services company, selected Meerwada as the first village in its Eradication of Darkness program, which aims to light up 150 villages throughout India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. The electricity is not free — households pay $1 to $1.50 per month for the electricity — an amount equivalent to what they were paying for kerosene. But the pilot project has made Meerwada a forerunner in India: a remote village with round-the-clock power. “Connect 50 houses, run a small solar plant and let people use energy as they deem fit,” says Pasupathy Gopalan, managing director of SunEdison’s South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa operations. “In Meerwada, we started by giving them only one light. Now, nine months later, they have 24/7 electricity.”

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With the cost of solar photovoltaic cells falling — prices dropped by 50% last year and are now a quarter of what they were in 2008 — renewable-energy advocates say India is ripe for a solar-power revolution. And it could use it. More than 40% of the countryside is still not connected to the national power grid, and a 2010 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. said power demand in India trails supply by 12.7%. Closing this gap “will be critical for India to achieve its growth targets,” the report said. Failure to meet that unsatisfied demand could hamper India’s growth, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said in a recent report. If India is to target a growth trajectory of 9% a year, it will have to increase energy production by 6.5% every year, the WEF said. Supporters hope solar energy can help address this power gap while allowing India to stick to its goal of cutting carbon emissions by 20% to 25% by 2020.

With around 300 sunny days a year nationwide, solar energy’s potential in India is immense. And with $10.2 billion investments in clean energy, money is starting to follow the opportunity. India received $95 million in venture-capital funding and over $1.1 billion in large-scale funding for solar projects in 2011, according to a report by Mercom Capital, a clean-energy consulting firm. The biggest funding deal was a $694 million loan raised by Maharashtra State Power Generation Co. for its 150-MW Dhule and 125-MW Sakri solar projects. “The needs of rural India will not be, should not be and cannot be met by the national grid,” says Bhoo Thirumalai, CEO of Aspiration Energy, an emerging solar company. “Solar is the most practical solution for rural India.”

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Solar power’s backers say India needs to embrace a decentralized model of power generation to fully realize the benefits of tapping the sun. “There is a new era of possibilities beginning now with solar. All that is needed is for policymakers to believe in local generation and delivery rather than a centralized model,” says Gopalan. The Barefoot College, a nonprofit organization based in the western state of Rajasthan, has been quietly experimenting with a decentralized mode of solar electrification since 1989. It trains rural, uneducated women to become solar engineers and solar electrify remote villages. Its graduates have delivered power to more than 13,000 homes across India. “We need low-cost, community-based solutions. Let poor people manage, control and own their own resource,” says Bunker Roy, Barefoot College’s founder and director. “Involve the communities in all decisionmaking processes and then only they will look after it and take responsibility. We don’t need business models. We need partnership models.”

India’s government has begun to acknowledge the importance of solar energy to the country’s economic growth. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has said solar energy will transform rural India, launched a National Solar Mission in 2010. Initial growth has been dramatic, albeit from a tiny base. From less than 12 MW in 2009, solar-power generation in the country grew to 190 MW in 2011. By March 2013, it is expected to grow fivefold to 1,000 MW, but the country has a long way to go to reach its goal of increasing solar-power generation to 20 gigawatts by 2020. Across India, there are still thousands of villages with plenty of sun but not enough power.

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