Decentralized renewable energy: complementing the grid to reach millions without access in India

Reading time: 6 minutes
6 June 2017

As the Government of India continues to focus on strengthening its national grid, Shilpi Samantray, Project Officer, The Climate Group, India, highlights how the organization is working with partners to promote the value of decentralized renewable energy (DRE) systems, aligning it with India’s national priorities on energy access.

Currently, an estimated 237 million people in India lack access to any form of electricity, while an additional 100 million have less than four hours of electricity per day. At the same time, the Government of India has set a target of generating over 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022.

This is an ambitious target – even more so if we consider the government’s plan to provide power for all citizens by 2019. The fact that many rural communities have electricity grids that have been installed but are not always operational also presents considerable challenges.

Energy access is not just about electrifying a house: it is about helping social and economic growth within villages and communities, whilst building a cleaner and sustainable future for the whole nation. We believe that DRE can play a fundamental, complementary role, in working alongside the national grid to help achieve universal energy access – and quickly.

Shifting the narrative

Following last year’s India Energy Access Summit (IEAS), which brings together industry leaders and policymakers to explore the opportunities for scaling-up DRE, we developed a partnership with the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, to help change the way in which DRE is perceived and positioned in India.

As part of this one year partnership, we have undertaken a literature review to identify how DRE systems have been addressed in India over time, and have planned strategic meetings and roundtables with key stakeholders from the DRE community.

Already, we have jointly hosted a successful roundtable session with Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation consisting of 15 key stakeholders from the energy and business sectors, including the Rockefeller Foundation, KPMG and the Clean Energy Access Network (CLEAN). We identified how we can collectively develop common messaging to promote the value of DRE systems, in order to help engage government, investors, developers and thought-leaders on the issue.

We are still in the early stages of this project but we are making good progress. By discussing the challenges and opportunities of this approach in our workshops, we are also addressing policy gaps that are holding back integrated approaches to energy access.

A growing sector

The Government of India has historically developed a range of policies and schemes to promote DRE. In 1950, the first Indian Five-Year Plan laid the foundations for rural energy policy, with the specific goal of developing rural areas in both a social and economic context.

However, it was only in the early 1980s that the importance of renewable energy was formally recognized in India, after which it became the first country to set up a dedicated government department - The Department of Non-Conventional Energy in 1982 (which was later converted to a Ministry in 1992 and renamed the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in 1996).

Since then, the DRE sector has continued to grow. The Government of India has taken significant steps in reaching out to millions in rural communities with a promise to provide accessible, affordable and reliable power. However, there is still a gap between demand and supply, and there is some evidence to suggest that energy distribution companies are unsure of investing in areas with a limited customer base.

DRE is yet to achieve the scale necessary to reach rural communities in sufficient numbers, and much more needs to be done to achieve this crucial goal. This is why the communications element of this project is so important in helping us to raise awareness of this issue among key stakeholder groups.

We hope in the longer term that this project will help us to shape recommendations to the Government on the best approach to scale-up DRE and integrate it within the official overall electricity agenda, whilst highlighting how to overcome barriers to achieving this important goal.

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