The Earth’s on-going energy crisis, precipitated by heavy industrialisation and over-reliance on fossil fuels, has forced our nations to look at alternative, renewable sources of energy. India, soon to be the most populous country in the world, has massive energy needs to meet. Among the many different sources of alternative energy that it can tap into to meet these needs, tapping sunlight to create electricity or solar energy has perhaps the most crucial role to play.
240 million Indians still live without electricity and 700 million get power for only around 6 hours a day. Yet we are currently the 4th largest consumer of energy in the world, and still get a significant portion – almost 40% – of our power from non-renewable fossil fuels.
To counter this, amongst other measures, the government has also instituted The National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF), which is enabled by charging a ₹50 cess on every tonne of coal produced or imported in the country (thus taxing the use of fossil fuels as well). Since 2010, the NCEF has collected ₹54,000 crore – a staggering number which is proof of our over-dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
Using solar energy would not only help reduce this over-dependence, but also help power these regions in an affordable manner. Moreover, given the fact that India gets around 300 days of sunshine and a general tropical climate, it is ideally suited for solar energy.
Solar power can be achieved in several different ways – most notably through solar power cells and panels, and setting up solar-powered microgrids. In places like Rajanga in Bhubaneswar, where such microgrids have been set up, the results have shown tremendous success – bringing power to villages that had no access to traditional sources of electricity, water supply and tarred roads. “We had a kerosene lamp before, but this is exciting and cheaper,” says Ramesh Chandra Pradhan, of Kanaka village, that runs on solar grids.
Moreover, as a signatory of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, India is not only duty-bound to switch to clean and affordable energy by 2030, but also ensure universal access to renewable energy. This means that the government has to ensure that citizens across the country, belonging to every social stratum, have access to clean energy. Given the economic benefits of solar power – which range from reducing your power bill to boosting the country’s economy by improving production and eliminating dependence on fossil fuels – this may not be as far-fetched a goal as it sounds.
Yet, it is also clear that the government alone cannot accomplish this huge task.“Large schemes by the government make no sense,” says Dr Harish Hande, founder of SELCO, which has been providing solar energy solutions to rural Karnataka. “You need money to maintain solar panels, water to clean them, land to build them on, etc”, he says, implying that it would be difficult for the government to single-handedly meet such massive yet precise needs.
The fact that the country has managed to mobilize $30 billion towards attracting private financing in the field, through international cooperation and investments, also tilts the balance towards involving the private sector favourably in this endeavour.
But a lot still needs to be done in order for India to realize the Clean Energy dream and meeting the targets of Goal 7 of the SDGs. And decentralization has a crucial role to play in that direction.
“Only decentralised initiatives make sense. Decentralisation is democratisation. It opens up more choices, sparks more innovation,” says Dr Hande.
Since its inception in 1995, SELCO has been putting great focus in this direction. It has set up 45 energy service centres in Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Moreover, they have set up over 2,00,000 solar home lighting systems in 20 years, and created India’s largest solar water heating system – with a capacity of over 4,00,000 litres!
By approaching solar energy through creative solutions – funding rural evening schools, providing power to Tibetan settlements, and most prominently, providing robust financial aid to rural households and communities, organizations like SELCO are helping communities switch to solar power easily.
But in order for decentralisation to work, rural entrepreneurs and farmers need to be empowered to take on solar power initiatives to maintain their businesses. Their work must be promoted on the same level as urban entrepreneurship. The most effective way to do this is through the country’s vast network of rural banks, which SELCO has managed to tap. “We need to utilise the 40,000 (sic) banks in rural India,” says Dr Hande. “Incentives need to be created, through banks, ITIs, etc, for 600 million (sic) poor people.”
A major obstruction in the path towards this goal, according to Dr Hande, is the importance given to English – to a certain kind of education – in the entrepreneurial climate of India. “A farmer will not be called an expert in sugarcanes despite working with them for 40 years, but someone with a degree in sugarcane breeding will be. This needs to be changed,” he says. “We need to break free of English hegemony through the financing networks that we have for rural India.”
Moreover, rural entrepreneurs, farmers, and other workers should be in a position to use these products, and make a profit from them too. If a rural entrepreneur takes a loan to invest in solar power for themselves, there needs to be a way for them to pay it back. “Vegetable sellers, paddy farmers, tailors, etc, will all require different incentives. We need to be prepared to meet those requirements,” says Dr Hande. “A solar power sewing machine makes no difference if the market is not there.”
To do this, it is essential for us to develop proper industry and infrastructure, and meet the goal of infrastructural development by 2030. And of course, another prime reason for switching to solar energy – or any kind of clean energy – is to reduce the massive amounts of pollution produced by traditional fuel, as well as fight climate change – which is essential to the SDGs.
As a signatory to the SDGs, it is essential for India to step up its game and give solar energy an even bigger push. To truly switch to a clean energy future and make sure it reaches every last person, India needs better financing, as well as bolder policies about utilising solar power. It is not just about switching to renewable energy, but also creating the infrastructure necessary to support this switch. This includes both physical infrastructure as well as aims like education, accessibility, etc – so that every person is aware of the benefits of renewable energy.
And this is not an impossible task – clearly, solar energy is showing positive effects in places where it has been tried out. With enough interest and a renewed focus on education and empowerment for people across all sections of society, the day may not be far when solar energy will power a truly clean, green India.