The truth about the efficiency of renewable energy boils down to one word: economics.
According to conventional wisdom, it has long been understood that renewable energy will have a marginal impact on our everyday lives if coal-based electricity continues to be cheaper. In India, with the tariffs on solar and wind-based electricity falling below that on coal-based power, the prospects of renewable energy in the country have changed for good. The trajectory of India’s shift to renewable energy can be seen in the way international publications like The New York Times have covered the renewable energy sector in India – from scathing articles condemning India’s dependence on coal-based energy to more recent articles lavishing praise on the country’s renewable energy ambitions.
The watershed moment for renewable energy in India occurred on October 2, 2016, when it officially ratified the Paris Agreement of 2015. According to the terms of the Paris Agreement, India is set to replace 40% of its existing energy capacity (close to 175 GW of power) with renewable energy. India is a solar-surplus country with a vast untapped potential for solar-based power generation. So it is only natural that of the 175 GW renewable energy target, 100 GW is expected to be generated from solar energy.
Despite these bold steps for sustainable energy generation, nearly 240 million people in India continue to live without electricity. For a majority of India’s population, the challenge when it comes to energy is two-fold: finance and accessibility. For many people, the money spent on accessing power represents a significant part of their livelihood. At the same time, the existing grid-based power systems have not reached everyone in the country, leaving millions in the darkness.
The Kotra tehsil in Udaipur district, Rajasthan, is one such region in India without access to grid-based electricity. Kotra has the same problems as other remote, tribal regions in India – a chronic lack of access to healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities. The lack of access to energy compounds many of these problems, stifling development in the region.
Vivek Shastry, an energy analyst at the SELCO Foundation in Bengaluru, has been working with the community in Kotra, providing them with electricity through decentralised solar systems. According to him, “Energy is an entry point for many people. All development in agriculture, livelihoods and agro-based industries follow from there.”
For communities like the ones in Kotra, decentralised renewable energy systems – individual solar units or community wind turbines – could very well provide an alternative way of accessing energy. Despite the remoteness and relative backwardness of the region, solar power is not an alien concept to the people here. Over the past decade in Kotra, several cheap, China-made solar units have flooded the market. A few years ago, an initiative by the state government also provided many of Kotra’s residents with heavily-subsidised solar units. The cheap China-made solar products were often of poor quality and stopped working within a few years of use.