Are mini-grids the answer to rural electrification?

Tuesday July 4th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Interview with Leena Chandran-Wadia

Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

Location: Bangalore, India

“The day we can say that every home is electrified is very far away”

‘Kerala is totally electrified!’ run the headlines in the  Indian papers. It’s a claim many Indian villages make, says Dr. Leena Chandran-Wadia, the Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a public policy think tank, who worked on a landmark report on renewable energy in 2013. In India, only 10% of a remote village is required to be electrified, its public facilities included, for it to be classed as a fully electrified village. But what about the other 90% of homes? “It’s a challenge,” says Chandran-Wadia. “The day we can say that every home is electrified is very far away.” India’s goal is to reach 100% electrification by 2022, when India marks 75 years of independence.

Chandran-Wadia describes her past life as a “hardcore scientist and technologist”. With a doctorate in computational physics, she has worked in IT roles in industry and academia. The gap in education she noticed from teaching at women’s colleges and at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) worried her. Then, she was told to do something about it, in a chance meeting with the chairman of the ORF. She joined as a volunteer in 2009, before joining the organisation. “It’s the best thing I did,” she says. “I never looked back.”

Viewing statistics from the 2011 census was really shocking, she says. “80 million households – some 300 million Indians – still did not have access to electricity,” she says. Thanks to a combination of good timing and a focus on energy access to electricity, ORF was the first organisation to advocate for mini-grids as a solution for energy access, says Chandran-Wadia.

The 2013 report has been taken on board by Indian leaders, particularly by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). “The government got the message,” she says, on decentralised generation and distribution. The leading Hindu right-wing nationalist party actively campaigned on energy access in the 2014 elections, making it one a key development goal.

In India, the issue of electricity is dealt with by each individual state. The ORF research team visited villages and gathered data, noting innovations in the single solar panel on a hut, or the solar light in the centre of a home which lit three rooms. However, they felt “completely dissatisfied” with what seemed to be “yesterday’s solutions”, says Chandran-Wadia. “This is the 21st century, and we need power 24/7. Women should be able to grind something when they want to, on demand!”

Chandran-Wadia came across “one or two robust installations”, based on the initiative of local NGOs and those in the corporate sector. “It is important to keep the community central to decision-making,” she says, applauding installations with smart metering, as launched by foreign companies such as Bosch. She also lauds an ambitious programme which was launched by the government of Chhattisgarh, in central-east India. They installed almost 700 DC mini-grids, but failed to understand the behaviour of society in its electricity usage. “They understood scale,” she explains. “Their fundamental mistake was having a 5 rupee (less than 1 USD) flat fee for usage, since there was not enough electricity for everyone in every village. People with TVs or fridges were able to pull more out of the system, the batteries die, and it goes dark for everyone else.”

villagers with panels

“We pay attention to the little details that lead to success,” she says. She speaks of “feeder line separation”, a manual separation of electricity to households or workplaces. This strategy was used in a mini grid set up in the hamlet of Darewadi in the Western Ghats (Sahyadri), the mountains between Puna and Mumbai. The 37 families (200 people) who live in this remote location no longer need to be without energy access during the many months of monsoon rain.

Another key point from the report was that any installation should be compatible with the grid – no slinging of wires across trees in a remote location. “We set standards for the installation of the mini grid – you must have metres in homes, concealed wiring,” says Chandran-Wadia. “A hook-up point would later allow for the grid to be extended. Solar panels which once ran a remote community could also feed into the grid, when they generate more than the batteries can hold.” However, for Chandran-Wadia this trend towards grid extension is diverting from her initial bugbear, of solving the issue of energy access to everyone. “India’s push towards clean energy, thanks to the Paris agreement but also because of the difficulties of mining coal and cheaper solar panels, means entrepreneurs are setting up very large, solar-watt level plants for the grid,” she says.

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Nonetheless, the report has had international resonance, and led to more projects in the field. “Our social entrepreneurs can’t find the money, and we have helped make those connections,” says Chandran-Wadia. India’s “2% law” of 2013 also helped. It the first country in the world to require companies with annual revenues of over 10 billion rupees (155.5 million USD) to spend 2% of revenues on corporate social responsibility. “It means more companies are now looking around for useful things to do.”

Since Chandran-Wadia’s move to Bangalore, she has stayed on as an advisor for the project team in Bombay. “Last week, I read that 45 million homes – meaning 200 million people – would still be without access to energy, so we may have only impacted a third of people,” she says. There is no data breakdown on what effect ORF’s recommendations about mini-grids have had; Chandran-Wadia says some NGOs have installation numbers, whilst the consultancy A Bridge to India provides a country-wide review of solar.

“We are not developed in India,” she says. “We do not need to develop along the same dirty path that developed countries do.” Take, for example, India’s commitment to only selling electric cars after 2030. “Suddenly we’re becoming green, but because of market forces – cheaper solar panels – which allow us to set aside coal and not open as many nuclear power stations that we thought we needed.” This is where Chandran-Wadia’s boss would step in to tell her that her job is done, that awareness has been raised, government has been sensitised and best practises have been shared.

Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee