For four hundred million Indians, decentralised energy makes sense today, says the founder of the sustainable energy social enterprise, SELCO.
The Government drew precisely the wrong conclusions from the blackouts [last summer]. It said, effectively, "There are so many power failures that we've obviously got to ramp up the mains grid as quickly as possible, and that means more coal and nuclear power. We haven't got time to wait for renewables…"
You can't treat a cancer with a Band-Aid
It's a massive misconception of what's really needed. It's like they're looking for a quick fix: a Band-Aid for cancer. But the best treatment for an unreliable grid isn't to pour yet more resources into it. More importantly, this isn't going to reach the 400-500 million people who have never had any electricity.
Spend money on decentralised energy to help the poor up, not fences to keep them out
There's mounting social unsustainability in rural areas: a growing sense of expectation and frustration. Just look at the conflict between the mining companies and tribal people. These companies have three or four fences surrounding their operations, because they don't know when or whether the tribals will attack. Which is a ridiculous situation to find yourself in! Instead of spending so much money on security, why don't we create equal opportunities for those people? And decentralised energy can bring those opportunities to their door. People don't realise the direct impact it can have. For 400 million people, decentralised energy makes economic, environmental and social sense today.
You don't have to be poor…
The middle class can enjoy the benefits of super-efficient hybrid minigrids, whether it's solar-wind, or solar-micro hydro, or biogas or biomass... They can bring reliable power to people suffering long hours of electricity cuts or voltage fluctuations.
Two things I'd do tomorrow to boost sustainable energy
First, I'd remove the taxes on solar and other renewables. Taxing renewables while subsidising kerosene completely distorts the market, and discriminates against the poor who want to replace polluting and dangerous kerosene with clean, safe solar.
Second, I'd outlaw inefficient appliances. For example, we have fans rated from one to five stars, and there's a huge difference between them: from 35W for the most efficient five star model to 80W for the one star. Why allow inefficient ones? They drain power from the grid, and they can't be powered by small-scale solar. The efficient ones do the job of keeping you cool just as well…
We need the energy equivalent of the agricultural revolution
Over the last few decades, we've seen a lot of effort by local technical institutes to create an 'ecosystem for agriculture', for example by training and equipping people on everything from repairing water pumps and motor windings through to selling fertilisers, and so on.
Exactly the same revolution needs to take place, through the same network of institutions, for decentralised energy. We need to train people in servicing and repairing solar, pico hydro [ie water power up to 5kW], biogas and biomass installations. There are 600-plus technical institutes in the rural areas: just think what sort of an ecosystem that could create! Once you have a body of resourceful people out there, trained in these energy technologies, you will have pressure building up to push these products and services out through the villages, and that creates entrepreneurship. This is how the agriculture revolution took place in the 1970s, which resulted in India achieving self-sufficiency in food. We need to apply the same passion and rigour now to look at our real power requirements and decentralise our energy.
Harish Hande, one of India's leading energy entrepreneurs, is founder of SELCO, a social enterprise which provides sustainable energy services to the rural poor, and winner of the Ashden Outstanding Achievement Award for Sustainable Energy. Interview by Martin Wright.
Photos: SELCO Solar Light Pvt. Ltd