Solving the energy conundrum

Some lessons for transition to small scale solar energy in rural areas from the work of MAJLIS, a collective of dalit and adivasi women in Madhya Pradesh.
There has to be a policy shift for decentralised off grid or distributed generation catering to small communities. (Image: MAJLIS) There has to be a policy shift for decentralised off grid or distributed generation catering to small communities. (Image: MAJLIS)

Access to electricity is a key metric in development. In rural areas, getting on to the grid is a major step forward, improving literacy rates, agricultural productivity and overall household income. However, providing access to power derived from traditional sources like coal, diesel and hydropower, are proving unsustainable in the short and long term. Switching to cleaner alternatives, and making these alternatives affordable is critical.

Rahul Banerjee, an Indore-based social activist and development researcher who works with Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (MAJLIS), a collective formed by Dalit and Adivasi women in western Madhya Pradesh spoke to India Water Portal about their experience in implementing solar energy at the small scale level, and the need for a supportive ecosystem for small scale solar installation and  servicing.

What distortions have emerged in electricity generation and distribution in India?

Post-independence, the Government of India’s thrust has been on the generation and distribution of electric power. So, the Centre and states invested in mainly coal based thermal power generation and some hydroelectric power. This led to two main distortions over time. First, there were inefficiencies in power generation and distribution, with low capacity utilisation in generation and high transmission and distribution losses, which in turn resulted in huge supply shortages and a large uncovered population. Second, it led to a situation where State Electricity Boards are financially unviable as institutions, because they have to bear the cost of subsidies given to farmers and industries legally or illegally, by condoning theft of power.

What were the problems with power sector reforms in the 1990s?

When the economy was liberalised in the 1990s, the power sector also sought to be reformed, to deal with the above distortions. However, these reforms, while bringing some dynamism into the electrical energy sector, could not bring about a holistic transformation for the better due to the following inadequacies:

  • The extension of the market for power and the introduction of private enterprise into the sector have been half-hearted in nature, and in many cases private entities have been favoured without a true competitive market structure being established for the power sector.
  • The private sector has made investments only when it has had agreements assuring guaranteed returns, and not if they have to depend on the vagaries of the market. So even today, the bulk of the generation, transmission and distribution of power in India is done by the public sector.
  • Enough has not been done to promote renewable energy generation and consumption, which given their higher costs require pro-active subsidies.
  • The environmental and social costs of power projects, which have increased exponentially over time, have not been adequately addressed.
  • Access to power still remains minimal for a large section of the population.

The financial condition of India’s power sector entities both in the private and the public sector remains precarious and the costs to the public too are high, necessitating continuing subsidies to the poor. Especially problematic is the need to subsidise the supply of electricity to agriculture, given the worsening economics of that sector and the huge number of people dependent on it for their livelihoods. Most state governments are providing huge subsidies to the distribution companies to provide cheap or free electricity to farmers. 

What are the problems with centralised power generation and is there a way out?

The biggest problem is that the average per capita power consumption in India is about 2 units of electricity per capita per day, whereas the global average is 8 units of electricity per capita per day, which is the minimum required for a dignified existence and a thriving economy. The first problem that arises from this big shortfall is that the present power generation paradigm based mainly on coal fired thermal power plants will not be able to assure a quadrupling of supply to make up this shortfall due to environmental, technical and financial concerns. Neither is such quadrupling possible through centralised gas based thermal power generation, hydro-power, nuclear power or wind and solar power.

Thus, there needs to be a reorientation towards decentralised power generation which, in addition to ensuring greater access to power for the vast majority, will also bring down transmission and distribution losses. There has to be a policy shift for decentralised off grid or distributed power generation catering to small communities.  

This can be a mixture of biomass gasification based generation, biogas, solar photovoltaic panels and wind power - the first for the heavier needs of agricultural production and processing and the latter three for household needs. It requires roughly 6 kilograms of biomass to produce 1 unit of electricity, where a rural household requires about 4 units of electricity for its agricultural operations; this equals a biomass requirement of 25 kilograms per day, which is not very difficult to ensure with forest conservation and re-utilisation of agricultural biomass. Solar panels have become more efficient with time but the problem of storage still remains expensive.

Thus, the technologies for distributed electricity generation do exist, and can solve the problem of energy availability if properly supported by government policies and programmes. Currently, this support is either minimal or non-existent. Indeed not just in the power sector but for our overall energy needs too, decentralised energy production is the way to go given our huge foreign exchange outgo for the import of crude oil, gas and good quality coal.

Tell us about MAJLIS’renewable energy programme, especially on solar energy and your experience with the service ecosystem.

MAJLIS began its work on solar energy by installing 500W of solar panels in their Indore office to power its 1500 kva inverter cum battery system. Instead of charging the battery from grid power, it was charged with solar power. The extra solar power after charging the batteries during the day was used directly through the inverter. A solar charge controller was added separately to the inverter and battery system. The parts were sourced from vendors in several locations as integrated solar vendors like Tata Power charge an exorbitant amount for their services.

After this, another 500W of solar panels were installed in the field centre in Pandutalav village about 50 kms from Indore. A combined charge controller cum inverter sourced from a supplier in Chennai helped to save on costs. Inverter technology is now quite well developed, and this particular company was using German technology. Yet there were problems and service centres were far away. Due to the fact that the market for solar inverters is not big enough, the companies selling them cannot afford to have service centres all over the country unlike say cell phone manufacturers. Neither has local expertise developed in repairing these inverters as in the case of cell phones. So if there is a breakdown, then getting the inverter repaired is a pain.

The glitches we have faced are standard ones that have plagued decentralised solar units throughout the country for close to two decades. At the moment, we have thousands of panels lying idle across the country because the connectors have burnt out, the batteries have discharged and the charge controllers and inverters have malfunctioned and there are no service personnel nearby, unlike in the case of malfunctioning of the mainstream electric system.

It is indeed a telling commentary on the mentality of the policy makers of this country that these basic problems have not been addressed and decentralised solar units are still being installed without providing a proper service ecosystem.

What was your experience of net metering solar roof top programme as producers and exporters of electricity to the grid?

We installed a net metering system in the MAJLIS office in Indore, adding another 1000W of panels to make it a 1.5 KW system after net metering was made functional in Indore. In net metering, during the day the consumer feeds the extra solar electricity produced into the grid while during the night she imports electricity from the grid. In this way, there is no need to invest in expensive storage batteries. The consumer thus becomes a prosumer, producing and exporting electricity to the grid during the day and importing it during the night.

If the prosumer is a net exporter then she gets paid for the electricity that she has supplied to the grid at a tariff rate decided by the Electricity Regulatory Commission. Theoretically, this is all very nice but in reality there are many problems. The general employees of the electricity distribution company are not aware about this policy but the ground approvals have to come from them. Being used to bribes for any approval, these employees stall the process expecting bribes despite the top level policy push for roof top solar net metering. Thus, the whole process of getting the approvals turned out to be a tortuous one since MAJLIS was not prepared to pay bribes and it took a few months to get through. Eventually, once the system was installed and operational, the problem of billing arose. The meter reader was neither acquainted with the new metering system, nor was he ready to learn it. Despite the MAJLIS system having been a net exporter for the month for which the reading had to be taken, he arbitrarily reported that MAJLIS had imported electricity as earlier. So a complaint had to be filed and the bill rectified.

The problem recurred. Knowing that the electricity company is not likely to pay for the exported electricity easily, given the huge losses under which it is running, MAJLIS had sized the system in such a way that they would export during the winters and import during the summers and overall be only marginal exporters. Unlike MAJLIS many prosumers have not been able to do get the bills rectified and are being slapped with the old bills in an ad hoc manner. The capital subsidy that was promised on the installation cost has also not materialised.

Thus, the net metering solar roof top programme is not likely to become a great hit in Madhya Pradesh if it is administered in such a slipshod manner. The situation elsewhere in India too is not very encouraging.

Our experience of installing a 1 horsepower submersible pump in the borewell cum hand pump at Pandutalav indicates that solar powered pumps are a huge investment that do not make economic sense without a subsidy. Thus, it is unlikely that decentralised solar irrigation will take off in a major way in this country without subsidy from the government. There is a scheme for providing 90 percent subsidy to farmers for installing solar pumps but it is being provided to only a very few farmers in a district every year. 

There are further problems with solar energy. The solar panels need to be cleaned for dust regularly. Optimally, once a week in cities where dust levels in the air are very high and at least once a fortnight in rural areas. If this is not done then the dust that settles on the panels reduced their energy absorption efficiency. Now the solar panels are normally at a height on the roof. So this means that one has to expend considerable energy and be athletic and climb on to the roof to clean the panels. The net result is that instead of once a week the solar panels are cleaned only once a month and this means some loss of energy production potential.

Our experience with solar water heater too indicates that since the water in Indore is hard, when it gets heated up, the calcium and magnesium salts get deposited in the pipes causing scaling. This reduces the capacity of these pipes to absorb energy. A time comes when the scaling is so much that the water does not heat at all. So the pipes have to be cleaned regularly once a year to free them of the deposits. Once again this is not an easy task as the pipes are made of glass and are tightly fitted with washers. In fact an expert plumber is needed to take the pipes out and free them of the deposits.

What needs to be done to support the small scale solar sector in rural areas?

Implementing solar energy at the small scale level is not only costly but also complicated because we lack qualified technical personnel for repair work, given the very low penetration of solar installation. In the face of government apathy to develop the small scale solar sector and its focus only on mega solar power projects, there needs to be a huge commitment on the part of consumers towards cutting down green house gas emissions by using solar energy as it is both costly and full of hassles. This is obviously missing and so decentralised solar energy is not taking off in India.

Consequently, there has to be a drastic change in government policy and much greater support has to be provided to the renewable energy sector to grow a market for it, and create an ecosystem where consumers find it easy to implement these systems if the energy conundrum is to be solved.

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