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Can Microgrids Bring Low-Carbon Power to Tens of Millions of People?

Powered by solar panels and biomass, microgrids are spreading slowly across India, where 300 million people live without electricity.
 
 
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Bharath Kumar was furious that the lights went out an hour early. His candy-making operation in the village of Tamkuha, in northern India, had been plunged into darkness at mid-batch, forcing him to use a weak, battery-powered lantern to manage his boiling pots. 

"If I knew that the power would be shut off an hour earlier, I would not have mixed the sugar in the flour," he fumed. "This is not the first time. I will keep a record of when the power is switched off every night and show this when they come for collections." 

People everywhere complain about the power company, but Kumar’s power company has an unusual challenge.  Husk Power provides light bulbs and a small amount of electricity to about 200,000 people in 300 tiny farming villages across the state of Bihar that have never been touched by the electric grid. Each village has a generator powered by burning and gasifying rice husks, a byproduct of farming that is otherwise wasted. 

The six-year-old company is one of numerous startups that are trying to build carbon-free or low-emissions "microgrids" to light up rural villages across India. The need is enormous. Roughly 300 million Indians living in 80 million households — about a quarter of the country’s population of 1.2 billion — do not have access to electricity. According to the World Bank, per capita electricity consumption in India, centered mainly in cities and towns, is 684 kilowatt hours —  just 1/20th of the United States’ per capita consumption of 13,246 kilowatt hours. 

Nearly all microgrids in India are powered by solar photovoltaic panels, with the exception of 20 to 30 networks that run on hydropower in the states of Karnataka and Uttarakhand and the biomass-powered grids operated by Husk. To date, microgrids provide just a tiny fraction of India’s overall power needs. Although no comprehensive statistics exist on the number of microgrids, a conservative count shows that they serve at least 125,000 households in India, divided mostly between large, government-sponsored projects in the North Indian states of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and private ventures centered on Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are among the most rural and least electrified states in India — a countryside packed with tens of millions of people, united by darkness. 

India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, through its  National Solar Mission, has set the highly ambitious goal of replacing kerosene lamps with 20 million solar lighting systems — powered by microgrids, solar panels on individual homes, or solar lanterns — by 2022. The microgrid sector is dominated by smaller enterprises like the four I visited in India:  Mera Gao PowerNaturetech InfrastructureMinda NexGenTech, and Husk. Most microgrid entrepreneurs hope their trajectory will follow that of the mobile-phone industry, which starting in the late 1990s transformed life in the countryside by bypassing land lines and enabling villagers to communicate with the outside world. The goal with microgrids is to bypass altogether India’s inadequate power system and troubled grid. 

"We argue that that villages and remote hamlets that are off the main grid can leapfrog into sustainable power access via solar PV (photovoltaic) mini-grids as a long-term solution rather than as a stop-gap 'till the time the grid comes,'" says a  report on solar microgrids written by the Observers Research Foundation of Mumbai. "An Energy Revolution akin to the Green Revolution in Agriculture in the [19]’70s needs to be brought about." 

Microgrid companies like Mera Gao Power offer a modest and rapidly installed infrastructure, serving as few as 20 customers from a small set of solar panels that often produce only a few kilowatts. One day in a village in Uttar Pradesh I saw how easy it is to install a microgrid. A team of four workers from Mera Gao strung lights to about 40 households. They attached the cables along house eaves and through the trees. (In other towns, installers use the abandoned poles of failed government power projects.) With the addition of two solar panels and a bank of lead-acid batteries, the system was good to go. 

 
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