Solar lighting has now lit up more than a million homes a 100 per cent increase since 2001 though the programme has its share of loopholes. This situation presents both challenges and opportunities…
More than 65 years after Independence, more than a million families in India live in darkness after sunset. Neither the electricity grid reaches them nor do they have the money to invest in alternative sources of energy. A much larger section of the population, nearly half the rural India, connected to the grid suffers from erratic supply. They depend on kerosene to address their power needs. But kerosene is heavily subsidised and there are huge leakages in the system. To eliminate the dependency on kerosene, over a decade ago the Government started a programme to offer off-grid solutions at subsidised prices. Under the RemoteVillage Electrification Programme (RVEP), the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) offers a solar home lighting system (SHS). It is a simple kit consisting of one or two CFLs, a solar panel, a battery and a solar charge regulator. For many, SHS was godsend. It saved them the expenditure on kerosene to get four-five hours of electricity a day. The programme has by now covered nearly 9,000 villages against a target of 18,000 and encountered a number of problems. The biggest is poor aftersale service, followed by malfunctioning batteries and CFLs. The Centre cannot monitor everything, defends the Ministry. “We rely on State renewable energy agencies to ensure proper functioning of the programme,” said Gireesh Pradhan, secretary of MNRE.
The solar initiative is not restricted to the Government. NGOs and private institutions are also offering expensive lighting options and financial help. For instance, Aryavart Grameen bank in Uttar Pradesh has provided loans for home lights to 50,000 families; the Exhibition Road in Patna is touted as the world’s largest market for solar equipment; and SELCO (Solar Electric Lighting Company) in Karnataka is the energy solutions provider for 135,000 rural families.
What is also evident is that the current format of RVEP limits its outreach and usage. People want systems that are capable of meeting their growing needs. The bad news is SHSs a unit comprises one or two CFLs, a solar panel, a battery and a charge regulator suffer from technical faults and poor maintenance services.
The entry of non-Government players signifies scope for growth in the off-grid solar sector. At a price tag ranging from Rs 8,000 to Rs 13,500, SHS sounds expensive, but this is just one-time investment. A family using kerosene lamps spends Rs 250 every month, whereas an SHS lasts at least 10 years. This means even an expensive system costs a little more than Rs 100 a month.
Such models offer hope for the country’s power woes but are limited in their reach, while RVEP is seen only as a stop-gap arrangement till the grid reaches remote areas. It does not have to be so; mini-grid solar can show the light. This is the opportunity for the future.
The RVEP is an elaborately designed mechanism to reach the powerless that involves a number of steps, from identifying remote villages to providing off-grid solutions. Ninety-five per cent of the solutions offered under the programme are solar appliances. The Centre covers 90 per cent cost of a solar home lighting system worth Rs 13,500. The rest is borne by the State or the household.
RVEP has a built-in system of monitoring on the ground, yet it is far from being successful. To find out why, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) visited Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Assam. Ground reports from the three key States are a mix of good and bad news. First the good news: people prefer solar home lighting systems (SHSs) over unreliable grid-based electricity. What is also evident is that the current format of RVEP limits its outreach and usage. People want systems that are capable of meeting their growing needs. The bad news is SHSs a unit comprises one or two CFLs, a solar panel, a battery and a charge regulator suffer from technical faults and poor maintenance services. Another pesky point is that the system of distributing SHSs is riddled with corruption. It remains unclear whether the Government is capable of starting a system to distribute energy to each household that will actually work. Chhattisgarh gives a ray of hope. It has a mini-grid system that provides solar energy to households on payment. Chhattisgarh is the only State that is focusing on providing community-based solar power plants under RVEP instead of individual SHSs. The 2012-13 draft revision of RVEP learns from this experience Will it go far enough?
Draft guidelines for Remote Village Electrification Programme
In mid-2012, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy released the draft guidelines for the Remote Vilage Electrification Programme on its website for public comments. Key proposals:
- Subsidy from the Centre for solar home lighting systems would be reduced to 30 per cent of the cost. At least half the balance needs to come from the State
- Mini-grids between 10 kW and 250 kW would receive 90 per cent subsidy on the capital costs from the Central Government
- The Centre would provide financial help for up to 58 W per household from the mini-grid. State will fix the tariff
- If grid power reaches the village with mini-grid, the project can be handed over to the power distribution company
- The programme would also pertain to villages that receive less than six hours of electricity a day from the grid
- It would be mandatory to provide streetlights to villages. For every 100 households seven streetlights will be allotted
– Project developers are required to open service centres for a cluster of villages or hamlets.