Thursday, February 24, 2011


How solar energy can wipe the tears of millions of poor

Of all the myriad challenges that we face, a couple of them top the list. For most of these challenges, there exists home grown solutions which never get replicated. Lets consider the example of the India's power sector. Problems are multifaceted. Firstly, insufficient power supply and secondly, massive power loss during transmission and distribution (which is pegged at 45 per cent) due to rampant power theft s which amount to a staggering 1.5 per cent of GDP. Currently, around 500 million people live with the regular problem of power-cuts. Around half of the rural households have no access to electricity. The access to electricity for urban households is a shade better taking the average around 35 per cent - who still live without access to electricity. Now, this 35 per cent – who are still living without electricity – and an equal number of people who have to perpetually undergo regular power cuts, have to largely rely on kerosene lamps for lighting purposes. Speaking statistically, around 65-70 per cent of rural people and 55-60 per cent of urban families use kerosene lamps. Needless to say, the dependence on kerosene is so high simply because alternatives like gensets and invertors are expensive and thus unaffordable for many families. Moreover, maintenance of kerosene lamps are no longer cheap (on account of rampant black marketing). It has high health risks too. Kerosene is highly inflammable and produces harmful smoke, due to which a lot of people die from accidents or develop breathing diseases. The WHO reports that air pollution from kerosene causes more than 1.5 million deaths annually.

This entire challenge appears to be an irony for a nation that is blessed with ample sunshine, almost throughout the year, which could be used to produce solar energy! India lags behind many countries when it comes to exploiting solar power. Nations are fast switching to solar power for sustainable energy security indicating a clear message to India. There are isolated examples of how solar power can contribute in India. According to a study by Agoramoorthy and Hsu, in 25 villages of the Gujarat, each household, on an average, saved Rs.10,000-15,000 annually aft er replacing kerosene lamps with solar lantern. Many NGOs and MFIs like SEWA and SKS Microfinance are providing poor people with affordable solar lamps and also helping them to start small manufacturing plants on the same lines. Presently, solar lamps are imported from China and other South Asian nations. But manufacturing these lamps at home would save Rs.1500 per unit. However, building a plant to produce such lamps would require a Rs.2 crore capital investment. To address such high cost, the Ministry of Renewable Energy in Dec'10 promised to provide subsidy of Rs.2,400 to the manufacturers for each lantern being produced. Even then, solar contributes merely 0.02 per cent of energy generation in the country.

To ensure energy security, the policy makers need to mobilise funds towards these schemes and replicate the scanty success into a national agenda. The Government can redirect a part of the subsidy meant for kerosene. During 2009-10, it provided a subsidy of Rs.17,364 crore on kerosene which would have been enough to produce around 30 million solar lamps! Solar energy would reduce the dependence on centralised conventional power grid and make villages self-sufficient in power generation. Th is will enhance the quality of life for poor and play a major role in India’s commitment towards a sustainable green environment!


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