Three billion people in the world lack access to affordable, reliable and clean energy services to support their daily needs and livelihoods. Among them, 1.2 billion are without any electricity; 221 million of whom are in rural India (IEA, 2015). Many of these communities are in forested, geographically isolated, and underdeveloped regions of the country. They turn to wood, agricultural waste, kerosene, and charcoal to fulfill their daily needs. Energy insecurity for these millions has significant environmental, economic, social, and health consequences. Black carbon from incomplete burning in millions of rural households threatens to raise global temperatures. Cumulative effects of this include degraded ecosystems, soil fertility, and crop yields. Household air pollution, from burning kerosene and wood, harms women and children’s health. Social norms make women and girls responsible for securing needed fuel, increasing their burdens. It is improbable that extensive grid power will reach rural Indian households in the near future due to limited natural, financial resources.
With grid connectivity failing to reach millions, there is an opportunity for off-grid solutions, specifically solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, to emerge as an effective alternative to grid electrification. The solar potential that India has with the geographical advantage of 300 sunny days and average daily solar radiation varying between 4-7 kWhm-2 for different parts of the country can be leveraged. However, review of solar and off-grid energy interventions in last two decades reveal that they degrade and fail when technical knowledge is not localized, the solutions are unaffordable or coverage is inadequate. This creates a lack of confidence in the technology amongst the rural communities. Renewable energy solutions, implemented since the 1980s, have failed due to lack of community involvement in design and implementation, weakening sustainability and durability. Involving communities to account for social norms, local ecosystems, and household behavior is crucial for successful design, dissemination, implementation and sustainability of solar photovoltaic interventions.
An alternative approach for a replicable solution is essential to ensure access to clean, sustainable, basic electricity to the most underserved communities in India. This approach should essentially provide a localized solution at an affordable cost. In this regard, in 2009 a pilot project was implemented in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, which distributed 20,000 solar study lamps that were assembled through employing local communities. The key lacuna observed in the pilot was the inability to sustain the lamp due to lack of repair service, which was incorporated in the Million Solar Urja Lamp (SoUL) Program. In this program, IIT Bombay has developed the framework for providing access to reliable, affordable and clean light, which has three concepts of ‘localization, affordability, and saturation’ at its core. The ‘localization’ concept focuses on knowledge and skill transfer to local communities through their involving in the assembly, distribution and after-sales service of solar study lamps, thereby generating confidence in technology and employment for people. In order to ensure ‘affordability’ of the lamp to poor households, the beneficiary contribution was determined at Rs. 120, considering the average
daily wage earned by an individual employed under the Government of India's Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) scheme. ‘Saturation’ ensures that maximum students (threshold kept as reaching 75% of the total enrolled rural school students in the block) in the intervention block have an opportunity to buy the lamp, resulting in a nearly complete coverage of the region and providing better economies of scale in assembly, distribution and after sales service of solar lamps.
One million solar study lamps were distributed in four Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Odisha, covering 23 districts, 97 blocks and more than 10,900 villages. As a step forward to the Million SoUL Program, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has sanctioned 70 Lakh Solar Study Lamps Scheme to be implemented in 5 states of Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
In order to provide an off-grid solar solution for underserved rural areas on a sustained basis, progression from horizontal to vertical expansion or integration is necessary. The horizontal expansion focuses on providing critical electricity to all in an immediate manner, which is being achieved in the Million SoUL Program and through the MNRE sanctioned 70 Lakh Solar Study Lamps Scheme. Along with the horizontal expansion, vertical integration, that is, providing localized clean energy solutions for multiple needs, domestic as well as productive needs is desired. However, unlike other technologies such as mobile phones that have managed to diffuse or percolate at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, this has seldom happened in the case of renewable energy technology solutions like smokeless stoves or off-grid solar. Solar Urja through Localization for Sustainability (SoULS) envisages providing local solar solutions for energy needs to the regions and communities where providing grid power in near future is difficult and expensive. The local solar solution includes involving local communities at each level of operation including manufacturing, assembly, sale, and after-sales service, thus creating livelihoods for them integrated with solar eco-system. The localized solution will reinforce other aspects, such as affordability, responding to the demand for availability, access, local repair maintenance, and confidence in technology, required for sustained adoption of solar technology in rural areas. In order to realize this at the ground level, local communities can be capacitated and empowered in owning and operating solar enterprises such as solar shops, managing supply chain network for solar products and even establishing manufacturing plant of solar components like PV modules, casing, and circuits. More local activities in the field would result in sustainability of solar products, the creation of local livelihoods, and strengthening of the local economy. Dungarpur Initiative comprising vertical integration aspect was launched in Rajasthan, in which local tribal women were trained to not only assemble, sell, repair-maintain solar study lamps but also to own, manage and operate solar shops. Further, the solar PV manufacturing plant in Dungarpur will be set up by April-May 2017 for which the foundation stone was laid on 26 January 2017, an auspicious Republic day. The local tribal women will own and operate this plant creating jobs for 30-40 local women serving local markets at the district and the state level.
The model evolving from SoULS experiments would be useful not only to bring out sustainable solar solutions but can be adopted to provide any other technology based intervention to solve problems of the regions and communities where prevalent conventional solutions have failed to reach or are not working. This may include the solutions integrated with sustainability aspect for providing clean drinking water, clean cooking, health solutions, food production etc.
Video for SOULS Project is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3SbmtJ1m88