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India’s rural poor give up on power grid, go solar

Panchabuta has often opined, that the off grid solar opportunities are much bigger than the utility scale solar power projects that seem to usually get all the attention.

Innovative solutions need to be developed in clean energy in the offgrid and micro-grid applications for electricity and cleaner safer fuels, where these solutions address what is called the “energy poverty” which we believe is more “energy availability” as applicable to India.

Such solutions not only have an economic impact on rural India but also far-reaching social impacts as can be seen by the early success of the solar lantern companies with traditional distribution models. This we believe is the “cleantech rural 1.0 solutions” in India and their early success has provided the platform for developing “cleantech rural 2.0 solutions ”.

This model will be evolved by innovative cleantech-clean energy solutions providers in conjunction with rural and social networks as a financing and distribution partners that not just help but participate in the scalability of such solutions.

It seems like the idea is now catching up and is becoming mainstream.

According to reports, India’s rural poor are now giving up on power grid and adopting solar.

Across India, thousands of homes are receiving their first light through small companies and aid programs that are bypassing the central electricity grid to deliver solar panels to the rural poor. Those customers could provide the human energy that advocates of solar power have been looking for to fuel a boom in the next decade.

With 40 percent of India’s rural households lacking electricity and nearly a third of its 30 million agricultural water pumps running on subsidized diesel, “there is a huge market and a lot of potential,” said Santosh Kamath, executive director of consulting firm KPMG in India. “Decentralized solar installations are going to take off in a very big way and will probably be larger than the grid-connected segment.”

When people who live day-by-day on wage labor and what they harvest from the land choose solar, they aren’t doing it to conserve fossil fuels, stop climate change or reduce their carbon footprints. To them, solar technology presents an elegant and immediate solution to powering everything from light bulbs and heaters to water purifiers and pumps.

“Their frustration is part of our motivation. Why are we so arrogant in deciding what the poor need and when they should get it?” said Harish Hande, managing director of Selco Solar Light Pvt. Ltd.

The company, which is owned by three foreign aid organizations, has fitted solar panels to 125,000 rural homes in Karnataka state, outside the west coast port of Mangalore.

Getting the technology to low-income customers is not easy. They need help with everything from setting up their first bank accounts and negotiating loans to navigating the fine print of payment contracts.

To find new clients, agents must go door-to-door in remote settlements, sometimes crossing rivers, hiking mountains or wading through wetlands to reach them.

But the sales pitch leads to reliable profits. Solar panels take little space on a rooftop, the lights burn brighter than kerosene lamps and they don’t start forest fires or get snuffed in strong winds. Unlike central power, solar units don’t get rationed or cut.

Buying solar panels is more expensive than grid electricity, but for people off the grid it compares well with other options. One of Selco’s single-panel solar systems goes for about $360, the same or less than a year’s supply of black-market kerosene. And government subsidies mean customers actually pay less than $300.

In two years, India’s government hopes the off-grid solar yield will quadruple to 200 megawatts – enough to power millions of rural Indian homes with modest energy needs.

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