India has made commendable progress in electrifying all its villages, mostly by expanding the central grid, and has also achieved near universal electrification in 2020 by connecting more than 28 million homes under the PM Saubhagya scheme.
The Saubhagya scheme, launched in 2017, was unique in itself as it focussed on last-mile household electrification at a scale. The International Energy Agency, in 2018, called India a ‘star performer’ in terms of achieving the milestone of providing power to more than half a billion people since 2000, and electrifying all its villages.
The next step is to provide 24X7 power supply to all connected homes and public institutions in a reliable and affordable manner.
This is easier said than done, considering the operational inefficiencies and poor financial condition of most state electric utilities. The access gap consumers and public institutions (such as health centres, schools, and panchayat buildings) are the potential users of distributed renewable energy (DRE) solutions. DRE solutions can be defined as small-scale energy generation units, based on renewable energy, which are at or near the point of use. The DRE system could work either in stand-alone mode or the energy could be distributed through a network called micro-grid. Whether electricity is from the centralised grid or from DRE solutions, it does not matter to rural consumers. The key is, it should be readily available when required the most, and be adequate and affordable.
For example, households with a grid connection could buy solar power packs for use as backup during blackouts, or as an alternative source of energy (like solar rooftops). DRE solutions will be most suitable for re-energising livelihoods, and address the unreliable supply situation of micro-enterprises and home-based industries. Solar pumping (where water is extracted using a pump running on solar energy) — whether stand-alone or grid connected — will become the norm rather than exception, especially with the launch of PM-KUSUM, as these pumps are proving to be most viable vis-à-vis the diesel or conventional grid-based pumping.
With falling prices of solar photovoltaic cells and storage technologies, coupled with the advent of smart digital technologies, DRE solutions will play a major role in enhancing and sustaining electricity access to meet the consumers’ demand. DRE solutions would be critical to democratise the central grid, empower urban and rural prosumers (consumers who also produce and/or store energy) through evolving models, facilitate peer-to-peer energy trading, and lead to the creation of electricity markets.
However, it will be imperative to assess the challenges by undertaking empirical surveys of existing DRE installations to draw lessons on their working and plan for their future sustainability.
For any DRE system to fulfil consumers’ demand, adequate measures have to be taken to make supply and service systems reliable. The infrastructure creation in maintaining the required degree of reliability in dispersed systems is undoubtedly complex, and will require extra effort and funding support.
The development of a robust post-installation maintenance infrastructure can be made possible by building local capacities, coupled with regular handholding support, and financing. The hub and spoke model that will link entrepreneurs with the equipment manufacturers will be essential for developing the ecosystem for sale, servicing, and financing of DRE solutions. Such entrepreneurs can be trained by the utilities to also maintain distribution grid and create responsive service mechanisms, which is at present absent in most states. This will also create employment opportunities for women and youth.
Renewable energy-based mini-grids, with tariff parity through regulation, and smartness through better use of technology and the Internet of Things, can effect a paradigm improvement from the present inefficient model of electricity distribution. However, a shift from the KW level micro-grids to sub-MW scale mini-grids is needed so that both domestic and productive loads are supported at grid competitive prices. The mini-grids, interconnected with individual DRE systems at prosumers’ homes, and further connected with the main grid to take and feed electricity, along with decentralised management, is the future.
Such actions will leapfrog India’s transition to clean energy, following a people-centric approach, to ensure sustained electricity supply and responsive services, and also generate employment. The right suite of DRE solutions and business models, beyond the grant-based models, with innovative financial support mechanisms have the potential to complement the central grid and support the government’s goal of ‘24X7 power for all’ by 2022.
Debajit Palit is senior fellow and director, TERI, New Delhi.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.