India’s Solar Revolution: Why Small Is Big

by Justin Guay, via Sierra Club

A while back I wrote a post on the need to get India’s solar boom right. I wrote the piece because it was obvious that solar energy is primed to take off in India and it was clear there are two paths the country could take: distribute that boom to benefit the 300 million people still waiting for the grid, or forcibly centralize a resource that is most effective when distributed.

A year later, installations have grown at a blistering pace — from 80 MW a year ago to over 1 GW — but they are almost entirely centralized. And now, the question is more important than ever: To centralize or not to centralize?

Let’s start with hard reality: The grid is never coming to rural India. No matter what policy makers want to believe, decades of attempts and huge gains in supply have yielded little increase in electrification. More importantly, off grid solar installations have been dramatically cheaper than grid extension because they compete with the huge costs of extending the grid and the huge costs of diesel and heavily-polluting kerosene. That’s why the future of rural electrification is decentralized clean energy — something even the very serious IEA recognizes.

But it’s not just the IEA that gets this. Politicians are catching on as well. Take Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, whose sole political platform is delivering energy access to the 100 million people of Bihar. To achieve this lofty goal (only 18% of the population currently has access) Bihar is going to need a distributed clean energy revolution because coal-gate has deepened the already immense problems of the coal sector, making the possibility of a coal fired future impossible. If Kumar wants to remain in office, he has to rely on distributed solar.

And, of course, distributed grid-tied installations reduce peak load which can help avoid blackouts like the historic one India just suffered. In short, distributed is the way to go.

Despite the clear benefits of distributed solar a wave of recently announced solar policies have failed to internalize its importance. From Uttar Pradesh (UP) where 1 GW of solar is planned for 2017, to Andhra Pradesh where a slew of tax benefits and reduced charges will help meet its Renewable Purchase Obligation, to Tamil Nadu where a whopping 3 GW are planned by 2015, it’s not at all clear that distributed installations will dominate deployment (except perhaps in Tamil Nadu).

Instead, they may go the way of Gujarat where the solar boom really began and large scale, grid tied solar farms are the norm. Many have cheered this on because big projects “drive scale.” But do they?

When the U.S. assessed solar installations, the results were surprising. All those small-scale distributed installations financed by third parties like Sungevity have added up to something really big – 2.5 GW which represents about 70% of all US installations. So here’s a lesson for all those who love scale: Small is big.

There are signs that India is beginning to recognize the importance of distributing all that solar. The Union ministry recently announced a new program that will subsidize rooftop solar installations by 30%. And even centralization- happy Gujarat has a rooftop policy in the works. Add to these positive steps the potential for third party finance from institutions like the IFC and India could have a distributed solar revolution on its hands that would deliver social benefits that would cascade throughout society.

But India will only get one chance to get its boom right. Squandering an opportunity to build a robust grid that avoids blackouts while lifting 300 million people out of energy poverty is simply not an option. As the National Solar mission enters its second phase, the country has the opportunity to drive financing and boost deployment of distributed solar. Now is the time to steer this ship away from its centralized mooring and toward a distributed clean energy revolution.

Because how solar is deployed is just as important to India as whether it gets deployed at all.

Justin Guay leads the Sierra Club’s International Program. This piece was originally published at the Sierra Club and was reprinted with permission.

7 Responses to India’s Solar Revolution: Why Small Is Big

  1. Justine Goldsmith says:

    This film i saw recently is totally relevant to this idea of a “Solar Revolution”. In fact, the film itself is titled just that. Whoever reads this article should check out the link below to scope out the trailer or movie. If you’re at all interested in the amazing power of the sun or the powerful effects it has on humanity, this is the film for you.

  2. Leif says:

    Coupled with cheep storage, (liquid metal batteries?) and cell phone real time distributed production credits and all have a cash cow in their hands. That is the way to beat the Taliban.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    This could revolutionize life in rural India – full speed ahead, ME

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    I saw these distributed solar systems in Sri Lanka when I went there to work after the tsunami. The technology was brought in from India, and was working through microfinance.

    Grid power cannot compete with small rooftop distributed solar in South Asia. Villagers don’t use air conditioning, and need solar only for fans, lights, and a radio. Total cost back in 2005 was $700 for a house, including two solar panels, a 12v battery, inverter, and wiring.

    Grid power is far more expensive, because they have to extend the grid and bill for very small amounts of monthly electricity use. It is never going to pencil. Most Indians still live in small homes and villages.

    Indian trading companies are just like our own- ruthless, and seeking central control. I’m glad that this scandal outed them, and let’s hope that the push to distributed power succeeds.

    Thanks for this important piece, Justin.

  5. Omega Centauri says:

    Is rural India going to be better served by rooftops, or by community micro-grids, which may be able to obtain some benefits of scale, as well as having a greater number of households to distribute the load amongst?

    I was surprised by a comment by an Indian techworker, he said he couldn’t do solar because it would be stolen. Maybe there is less crime in the rural villages than in the cities?

  6. Ozonator says:

    I recently saw most of a PBS show about “~Solar Mamas~” from Jordan who were supposed to be trained in India. It was mostly a show on a couple in Jordan whose 2nd wife wanted training and her children while the husband smoked and rested on government support. The Koch Brothers would have been pleased and India would get better support from Pakistan.

  7. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent post. I entirely agree with you.
    Yes. Even simple Box type solar cookers, solar dryers, Solar LED lights are yet to penetrate in rural areas of India. Why this Mad rush for Solar PV in India now? The answer is simple. Subsidies. It happened in Wind Sector earlier. The liberal 100% accelerated depreciation a very progressive measure was misused by some investors and the Government has now reduced it to 15% . The same fate awaits Solar PV too.
    In the wake of subsidies the first casualty is quality. Subsidies should be matched with Performance.
    Human Greediness is the same whether it is developed or developing countries!
    Let us hope there will be more emphasis to bring in Decentralized Renewable Energy Systems to Rural India rather than making a few richer by massive Renewable Installations.

    Put the RENEWABLES to WORK: To get inexhaustible, pollution-free energy which cannot be misused.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert