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Micro-scale biomass and solar grids are taking off in India, where the mains fails to meet growing demand.
"Blackout cuts electricity to 700 million Indians." So ran one typical headline at the end of July 2012. But it was typically misleading, too. For sure, 700 million people lived in the area affected. But as energy entrepreneur Harish Hande put it, "half of them had never seen a light bulb."
India's mains grid is not only failing to deliver to half its population: it's also failing to keep up with demand. According to McKinsey, by 2017 the country will be facing an energy gap of 25% – and rising. And given the present balance of power sources, if it did manage to close the gap the climate impact could be disastrous: over 70% of India's electricity comes from coal .
The Government's not oblivious to the issue. Its 'National Solar Mission' aims to make use of the country's 300 annual average days of sunshine to harvest its prime renewable asset. Gujarat, blessed with wide arid spaces and an ambitious chief minister in the form of the controversial Narendra Modi, is stealing a march. It boasts Asia's largest solar park, at Patan, with 214MW installed capacity, and expects to have solar power purchase agreements covering a total of 1.3GW by 2013. It's also embarking on some innovative approaches to solar, including 'roofing' some its major irrigation canals with PV panels – at a stroke generating power from 'spare' space, while also cutting water loss through evaporation.
But the real excitement around renewables is happening closer to the grass roots, where an array of entrepreneurs is developing decentralised solutions based on solar, biogas, biomass, small-scale hydro and wind.
Some, such as D.Light, are focusing on solar lanterns. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has an entire programme, 'Light a Billion Lives', which develops high-quality lanterns for rental at affordable prices, together with a network of thousands of solar charging stations. Others, such as the Karnataka-based NGO, SKDRDP, work with local self-help groups to provide them with a range of clean energy solutions, from solar to biogas, via a carefully constructed micro credit loan system.
A growing number of entrepreneurs are developing local 'minigrids'. Among them is Husk Power Systems, which uses crop waste, principally rice husks, to generate electricity via a process of biomass gasification. Based in Bihar, India's 'darkest' (that is, least electrified) state, Husk was founded by a local engineer and entrepreneur, Gyanesh Pandey, and now supplies power via village-scale grids to around 35,000 households. "If you can do it in Bihar, you can do it anywhere", he smiles.
For people marooned far from the mains, technologies such as these are nothing short of life changing. Rampur Sahebganj is a typical Bihari village: a wide swathe of homes, markets and temples in the gently sloping countryside some way north of Patna, the state capital. Until recently, there was no electricity to speak of – despite it being officially connected to the grid. At night on the fringe of the village, the Milky Way still shines out clear against the blackness, the brightest stars fiercely white, undimmed by the slightest hint of skyglow. To an outsider on a brief visit, the lack of power makes it look charming and romantic. For villagers like Hemanti Devi, bringing up her three daughters alone, it looks like hard work.
Last year, she was connected to Husk's newly installed grid, and she's clearly still excited by the difference it's made – as are her daughters. Instead of peering at their homework under the smoky flicker of a kerosene lamp, they can read without strain by electric light. They don't have to go to the market to charge their mobiles, and can gossip with their brothers, away working on building sites in Varanasi. "I can see properly to do the cooking now", says Hemanti, "and my eyes don't water from the kerosene smoke."
Best of all, she's saving money. Husk – which operates on essentially commercial terms – charges her INR150 a month – compared with the INR250 or so which she was spending on kerosene. It's a similar story in the market, where café owner Manoj Kumar can stay open several hours later thanks to the light, boosting his earnings by around a quarter.
One advantage of biomass gasification over standalone solar panels is that it generates more juice: enough to drive basic machine tools, for example. So the minigrids it powers come closer than most to 'conventional' power. The Government's coming round to the minigrid argument, with the 'Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification Scheme' exploring a solar-biomass gasification hybrid for Bihar along the lines of Husk's approach, and possibly with its involvement. Another advantage of having a 'day' and 'night' source of power is that it's available for much of any given 24-hour period, while adding to the general resilience of the supply.
Husk is now working on basic solar microgrids, powering groups of around 40 households from a 300-350W solar supply. That should give each home enough power for LED lighting, a mobile charge point and even a low-wattage TV, in return for a monthly fee of around INR75-100, which is the same or even less than the average household pays out for kerosene.
Such micro-scale power has many benefits. With a radius of just a few hundred metres, transmission losses are virtually non-existent. And with everyone knowing everyone else in the area, the risk of theft – commonplace from the mains – is massively reduced as well.
Many energy entrepreneurs are aiming at this scale too. People like Nikhil Jaisinghani, founder of Mera Gao Power, who is setting up a series of small grids in Uttar Pradesh. "We looked at what people were paying for kerosene lighting and charging their mobiles – around INR120 per month – and then designed a system which could match that."
TERI itself is working on microgrids, while others, like start-up Gram Oorja, are exploring a system of 'RESCOs' (renewable energy service companies), with an 'anchor customer', typically a small business already using a diesel generator, helping provide an energy service to their community.
Variations on the theme abound. TERI is planning a biomass-based system in Uttar Pradesh, where the waste heat from the gasifier would power a cold store, while the generator itself feeds up to 150 households, as well as irrigation pumps and commercial operations.
Potentially, such micro- and minigrids could end up being patched into an expanding mains network – an approach favoured by Amit Kumar, Director of the Energy Technology Development Division at TERI. Ashden Award-winner Pandey, by contrast, is not a fan of such integration: "In India, the more sophisticated the approach, the harder it is to manage. It will all get too complicated – my power goes there, your power comes here, and so on."
So, just how much of India's power demand could renewables meet? Amit Kumar puts it at around 30%; Gyanesh Pandey plumps for 40%. But he cautions that it would need a lot of things to work unusually well in terms of institutions and governance. "Think of any field of knowledge, and India has the best policies in the world, it has a research centre for it, it's probably got a government department for it. But when it comes to executing things – that doesn't always go so smoothly!"
Access to energy for all is not something we can’t afford
But of all the obstacles, he says, money's not the biggest. "The Government says there are 120,000 villages which don't have good power (it's probably much more, but let's take its word for it for now). It would need $5 billion to electrify these 120,000 villages (using a mini-grid model). That's less than the subsidy to kerosene every year. It's less than the $6 billion in foreign remittances each year. It's less than the $6 billion charitable contributions made by Indians in India each year. Access to energy for all", concludes Pandey, "is not something which we can't afford."
Sachin Joshi, Director of the Confederation of Indian Industry, is adamant that decentralised energy is the way forward. "I don't think the overall energy problem, both in terms of the demand gap and carbon emissions, can be solved if we are still obsessed with huge centralised energy production systems."
Villagers could spray paint their roof to power their home
And with new technologies emerging almost daily, there's scope for some disruptive surprises. Pandey is particularly excited about new 'quantum dot' LEDs, which can provide bright light for less than 1W, and 'organic' or 'spray-on solar', which he's exploring in partnership with Iowa State University. The aim: to commercialise a system which would ultimately see local villagers buying 'solar spray cans' in the market for a few hundred rupees and coating their roof space with low-efficiency photovoltaic 'paint', which would be enough to give them basic power. It's not going to happen in the next few years, but the very fact that it can be seriously mooted symbolises the speed of innovation under way in this fast-moving, most vital sector.
Photos: Martin Wright