In July of this year, Greenpeace installed a solar/battery microgrid in the village of Dharnai in eastern India. The 100-kilowatt system was designed to provide power for the villages 2,400 residents, 50 businesses, 2 schools, and other infrastructure. Greenpeace called the project inspiring, writing that case studies like Dharnai prove villages can develop their own clean power and contribute to saving their environment by showing we dont need to use nuclear, coal or other fossil fuels for energy.
A few months later, the government utility extended the national grid and made the solar microgrid obsolete.
Its apparently a familiar scenario in India, where extension of the central grid is scuppering efforts to supply clean, modern energy according to Bloomberg. We wanted to set this up as a business model, Bloomberg quoted Greenpeace campaigner Abhishek Pratap as saying. Now were in a course correction.
No one should be surprised that the grid has the ability to crowd out microgrids and distributed generation. As the Bloomberg piece noted, the governments grid extension is now flooding the community with cheap power that undercut the fledgling solar network. Thats a bit like saying that a new hospital came in and undercut Doctors Without Borders.
Bloomberg criticized the governments imposition of its erratic but unbeatably cheap subsidized power, accusing Indias utilities of crushing the [microgrid] model before it gets off the ground as they continue a policy of supplying farmers and the poor with cheap power. The grid may be subsidized, but its worth noting that grid power continues to be much cheaper where available than microgrids and distributed generation.
On the other hand, many villages in poor regions like rural India or sub-Saharan Africa are unlikely to be connected to the grid anytime soon. As the Sierra Clubs Justin Guay wrote this summer, the job of DG/microgrids is to help people get onto the energy ladder today rather than forcing them to wait decades for a grid extension that may never come.
The question, then, is why did Greenpeace choose to erect the first village in India where all aspect of life are powered by solar in a place that clearly was not decades away from grid access?
I spoke with Tufts energy expert and Breakthrough Fellow Kartikeya Singh, who was somewhat dismayed by the governments actions. I smell politics, he told me, noting that the government has been known to extend grid access ahead of elections only to let the reliability of the power system suffer in the long term. Were talking 8 to 16 hours of power cuts daily, according to Singh. So you may have grid access and sure it may be reliable (especially around elections), but it will fall back to shortages in the months that follow.
Singhs assessment that the grid in India is notoriously unreliable is shared by many experts. Does that mean that off-grid is the alternative?
Joyashree Roy, a professor at Javadpur University in India and a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, told me that solar and microgrids are not seen as a long-term solution; rather a stopgap solution until enough generation capacity is created and grids are extended. This is what an energy ladder from DG to full grid access might actually look like, in contrast to Greenpeaces vision of their solar microgrid being the end of the story. As of now it can be expected this renewable generation will be connected to the grid and some price negotiation will happen in the foreseeable future, according to Roy.
The upshot is that while grid access remains highly desirable and provides cheaper electricity than off-grid options, both remain unreliable in India. The concern is whether they can work together to pull Indians up the energy ladder.
The government has yet to come up with or firm up a policy that will give the market and any private entrepreneurs any indication of what will happen to their investment, said Singh. A recent paper in the journal Energy concluded that as more people consume more energy, grid connection becomes the lowest-cost option for delivering electricity. And a 2014 World Bank report on electrification insisted that a two-track approach, in which centralized and decentralized strategies are harmonized, is essential. The Dharnai case reveals what can happen when institutions both public and private fail to coordinate.
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