Oct 01, 2014

Out of the Shadows

Green Tech
Energy Policy
6 min
Energy accessibility is a major issue across much of the developing world. Around the globe, almost 4 million people die annually because the only po...

Energy accessibility is a major issue across much of the developing world. Around the globe, almost 4 million people die annually because the only power sources available are extremely harmful to their health. These sources are used for common daily tasks that can be easily taken for granted, such as cooking and lighting one’s home.

While this is a serious and pressing matter, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s estimated that nearly a billion people, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, lack basic energy accessibility. In India, this is a major problem, as a third of its citizens—400 million out of its 1.2 billion—are without power.

While the problem is staggering, India isn’t willing to let the current crisis turn into a future nightmare. Though oil and gas make up much of India’s energy profile, the country is turning to solar to solve the problem.

Trying Not to Get Left in the Dark

When it comes to powering India, one thing is for certain: maintaining the status quo isn’t going to work. Demand for energy is increasing dramatically and outpacing supply. In 2012, a massive blackout left 700 million without power in India—the worst blackout in the modern times. 20 of the country’s 28 states were without power and India was temporarily plunged into chaos.

While this blackout was a massive event for India’s energy infrastructure, living without access to energy is a daily reality for many rural Indians.

In a video produced by ClimateProgresss, one family discusses the crippling nature of their lifestyle without the most basic of necessities: light.

“Without light, one can’t do anything,” Govind Singh, an elderly man, says in the video. Not only are there obvious drawbacks to the absence of a reliable light source, but the not-so-hidden costs of the alternatives expand the issue.

Lamps, biomass, and other forms of dirty energy have direct health effects as their smoke and emissions can be toxic. Even then, access to these is relatively limited.

Many have said that renewable are the answer to this problem, and for the most part, they’d be right. High costs for both the materials and installation have made this difficult in the past, though that appears to be changing.

“India is one of the largest markets in the world. If you look at China, five years ago the country had zero solar installations,” Ahmad Chatila, CEO and Director of U.S.-based solar company SunEdison, explained in an interview with The Hindu Business Line. “This year, it will be 14 GW. India is as big a country with similar needs. India needs energy and solar costs are on the decline and because of that, it is a match made in heaven.”

Certainly, solar appears to be the answer to India’s energy issue, though the real key to solving the problem is the approach.

Thinking Both Big and Small

Addressing India’s energy problem cannot be done with a one-size-fits-all solution. This has been made clear in the rural parts of the country, where traditional electrical grids are in shambles. Power lines frequently stop functioning and leave those affected by its downing without power, often for long periods of time.

“In our area, there are too many problems with electricity, sometimes the electric poles break down and other such issues,” Singh told ClimateProgress writer Andrew Satter. This scenario is common across much of rural India, where older infrastructure lacks any sort of modern updates and is perpetually in a state of decay.

To fix this, companies and innovators are thinking smaller.

SunEdison, Tata Solar Power, and First Solar are just some of the companies who’re trying to bring solar to consumers in the form of lower-cost installations, parts, and microgrids that power single communities rather than a whole state.

The village of Dharani in the northeastern state of Bihar is a prime example of a microgrid lighting up a community. Powered by a 100 KW system, the grid serves 450 homes, which houses roughly 2,400 residents. The project was tackled by Greenpeace and two other NGOs—BASIX and CEED.

While bringing energy to the rural communities is extremely important, the country’s efforts aren’t all small scale.

India’s potential solar revolution has support from the highest office in the country.

With the swearing in of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late May of this year, the government reaffirmed its serious commitment to solar energy. Modi’s goal is to have every household run at least one light bulb by 2019. It’s an ambitious goal, though it looks to be entirely achievable.

The government is aggressively pursuing the National Solar Mission, which would, by 2022, install 20,000 MW of grid-connected solar power capacity and 2,000 MW of distributed solar power capacity.

The budget for these measures will come at a price to the coal industry, as Modi plans to double the tax levied on it to 100 rupees ($1.70) a ton.

Toward a Brighter Future

While some implementation has been done on the small scale, many larger scale projects are still very much in progress. Across the country, there are quite a few.

Solar is also gaining international attention, with key solar players in the Middle East coming to the INDIASOL 2014 convention in New Delhi to meet with Indian solar companies this October.

In the immediate sense, it seems the future of solar in India may lie with native manufacturing rather than importation of solar panels. 

According to KMPG, the revitalization of the Indian panel manufacturing industry could save $42 billion in costs. With India looking to impose duties in U.S. and other Asian panel and cell suppliers, this could prove to be extreme fruitful. KMPG believes the country needs incentives for manufacturing to take off.

Chatila expressed SunEdison’s interest in manufacturing in India.

“I think there are a lot of great conditions in India,” he said. “Many States have good policies. I am a believer in investing in India in manufacturing. If the Indian market does not evolve as I wish, I can export. Indian cost structures are very competitive.”

Chatila is also against the duties, saying he believes that trade barriers don’t help industry in any country. He did, however, reaffirm SunEdison’s commitment to India, saying that if the company had to pay more for panels, it wouldn’t really matter.

“I would like us to continue to be the leader. We do not see ourselves as a US company,” he said. “We are more an Indian company than any other company. We will do more, invest more.”
India is currently sitting on the precipice of a major solar revolution, though its future is far from certain. With the support and current momentum, it’s hard to see India as a country that’s not shining in the light of the sun anytime soon. 

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