Solar PV mini grids could boost energy supply to rural India

11 August 2016

As many as a third of Indian households lack access to grid electricity. Many of these households use traditional cooking methods, which are highly polluting and a grave danger to health. Supporting a transition to stable electricity remains problematic, however, even with government targets aiming to have the country wired up by 2022. A new analysis suggests mini grids, leveraging solar PV, is a sustainable and flexible way forward – although it requires national and international backing.

India has a vast population, estimated at 1.25 billion people. Supplying electricity to everyone has posed considerable difficulties to the country’s government. As it stands, around a third of the country’s households do not have access to the grid. While the grid itself is seen as comparably inefficient and in a state of disrepair.

Many of those that lack electricity use highly inefficient fuel sources, including the combustion of wood and agricultural waste, which are a health hazard in their own right, as well as a source of GHG emissions. The use of such materials, the World Health Organisation estimates, kills between 300,000 and 400,000 people per year.

Reducing household dependence on fossil fuels, while connecting people to the grid, has become an important policy initiative of the Indian government, with a timetable set out to provide electricity to the entire country by 2022. How to do so, however, given the size of the problem and sustainability demands, remains debated.

Mini grids could supply Indian rural energy demand

New analysis from Ricardo Energy & Environment, commissioned by the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office and in close collaboration with business partners, finds that an effective way of supplying electricity to hundreds of millions of homes in India can be achieved through solar (PV) mini grids. These grids meet sustainability standards, are flexible and provide a “powerful method of quickly bringing energy generation to rural areas.”

The research highlights, however, that the current value chain for the mass production of such grids is lacking. The firm recommends the development of international supply chains, national policy and financial structures to make renewable technology practical. Practical steps that can be taken towards the scale-up of the technology include, according to the firm, “supporting private sector and local supplier innovation, developing business models to ‘de-risk’ solar energy projects, and defining technical standards for mini grid design and installation.”

John Harvey, Ricardo Energy & Environment project manager, says, “India’s economy is growing rapidly, and the country has ambitious plans for widespread electrification. Renewable energy resources and technologies have an important role to play in these plans. By reaching out and sharing knowledge between government ministries and mini grid developers, financiers and suppliers, we have been able to offer solutions that make solar power a practical and profitable option to electrify India’s rural regions.”