HYDERABAD, India (AlertNet) - When India was hit by huge power cuts at the end of July, the residents of Patragonda, a tribal village in the eastern state of Jharkhand, remained blissfully unaware.
The reason is simple - the village, nestled in a dense forest, has never been connected to the national grid. Instead it gets its electricity from the sun.
Barely 10 km away, the Jharkhand state capital, Ranchi, suffers frequent power cuts and low voltages. On July 30, the city of nearly 3 million people experienced one of its worst-ever blackouts when the eastern grid that supplies it collapsed.
Work was disrupted in offices, banks, colleges and other institutions. Children enjoyed an unexpected school holiday. At the local airport, all flights were cancelled, while trains came to a halt on the track. City hospitals, including the state’s largest, the Rajendra Institute of Medical Science, had to suspend their services.
Patragonda residents, meanwhile, went about their daily business. “We don’t know what happened in Ranchi,” says 27-year-old Sajan Murmu. “In our village, there was no power problem.”
Patragonda has been supplied with solar power since September 2011 from an off-grid solar plant that produces enough electricity to light all its 109 houses and the four street lamps along the village road.
Other rural parts of India are also exploiting the sun’s free energy. In southern Mahabubnagar district, Lingamma, a 45-year old woman from Rayaletipenta village, is happy that she can now cook even after dark.
Her village got solar power in 2009. Since then, the women no longer need to finish their household chores before the evening. Now, as she cooks dinner, Lingamma can also watch her seven-year-old son doing his homework. “This is a permanent asset for all of us,” she says, pointing to the electric wire on the ceiling.
While a growing number of villages across India are installing solar energy facilities, most have done so not because it was their first choice, but because they could not get connected to the thermal power grid.
Data from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy shows that India had installed just over 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) power capacity by the end of June, a target it had initially set for March 2013.
The country’s next goal is to reach 22 GW of solar capacity by 2022.
Venkat Rajaraman, managing director of Solarsis, a firm that has installed solar plants in over 200 villages, says the figures are impressive but the sector remains too focused on meeting annual targets, rather than creating a real alternative energy revolution.
“This (1 GW solar PV installation) is more than satisfactory. But currently, solar PV happens in bursts because of the yearly target. This needs to be smoothed so that all the solar players have year-round business,” he argues.
Other measures that would lead to a more sustainable outlook for the sector include investing in local capacity to produce solar equipment and slowing down the rush to reduce the feed-in tariffs paid for solar energy that is sold to the national grid, Rajaraman says.
Shiv Shukla, head of the India office of Spanish solar energy company Abengoa Solar, also sees the need for a policy revamp. There is too much emphasis on keeping costs low to the detriment of quality, he believes, which could flood the market with inferior products and services, causing the solar push to run out of steam in the next few years.
“It is necessary to have a filtering strategy that allows only companies with good technology, experience and financial strength to participate in the (project) bidding process,” he says. Companies should also be required to spend a certain amount of money on developing projects so that they assume some of the risk, he adds.
‘NOT A SILVER BULLET’
Despite the progress on solar installations, some development experts say the government is still not doing enough to shift from dirty power to renewables, nor to ensure that solar energy is achieving its full potential in tackling poverty.
Keshav Shori, who heads a rural charity called Development Initiative for Sustainable Human Advancement in Chhattisgarh, says some states like his are still aggressively backing thermal power production, sometimes even at the risk of triggering food insecurity.
Shori says the authorities are acquiring land to build 34 coal-powered thermal power plants in Janigir Champa district, which is also the state’s most fertile.
“What is the point of wasting this land by building so many thermal power plants?” asks Shori. “Wouldn’t it be more rational for the government to rather invest the resources in building solar plants?”
Coal-fired plants require more land to dispose of fly ash, a by-product, as well as water – which could cut water resources available for agriculture, he adds.
Nonetheless, Siva Ramakrishnan, director of Sakti, a Hyderabad-based charity that supports rural livelihoods, warns that solar energy is no silver bullet for village economies.
Appapur, a village 150 km away from Hyderabad which gained access to solar electricity in 2010, has failed to enjoy any real development because severe water stress has affected crop production, he says.
Its solar plant may provide power to individual homes, but unless it is used more strategically, it is unlikely to stop villagers migrating when the water crisis deepens next summer, he warns.
“There are several streams surrounding the village. If a solar panel is set up near the stream and a pipeline is laid, the village could get its supply of water and it would help them grow food. This, in turn, would result in true development,” he says.
“Unfortunately in India, solar and other renewable energy still have a very narrow and sporadic use; it's seen as something only for lighting homes. We must broaden our vision; go beyond lighting and diversify its use to meet other needs, such as solving livelihood issues,” he adds.
NEED TO ‘THINK BIG’
One example of this is in Baddem village in Goa. Laxman Gaonkar, 52, survives on the seasonal vegetables and rice paddy he grows on his four acres of land. But foraging animals, especially wild boars, had long been a nightmare for him.
Then in 2010, Gaonkar, along with several other villagers, installed solar fencing that delivers electric shocks around their fields after learning about it from local agriculture officials. The government subsidised half of the cost.
“This (solar fence) has been a big help. Earlier, in this season, I used to worry all night about wild boars. Every morning, I woke up, thinking ‘what damage have the animals done today?’ Now, I sleep well," says the subsistence farmer.
But is India prepared to expand the potential for solar and other forms of renewable energy to meet the wider power needs of its fast-growing economy, including in urban areas?
“It is possible,” says Apak Gadi, a filmmaker who has been documenting the construction of the Lower Subansiri Hydel hydro-electric power project, India’s largest and most ambitious renewable power project with a production capacity of 2,000 megawatts.
“But right now the focus seems to be on producing power and selling it to a third party client in the neighbourhood (businesses or other Indian states). Instead, the ideal goal should be to disconnect some towns from the thermal power grid and electrify them with renewable power. It could begin right here, in this (northeast) region where power shortages are a way of life. But we are yet to hear of such a plan.”
The question of whether India makes a large-scale transition to cleaner energy will not be decided merely by technology but requires a more fundamental change in policy, experts say.
“We need to think big and out-of-the box. We need to think that renewable energy can do more than lighting a few bulbs,” says Ramakrishnan. “Even on a small scale, we can use it in other areas - purifying water, drying grains, protecting fields and so on. A total shift can happen only then.”
Stella Paul is an environment and development journalist based in Hyderabad, India. Twitter: @stellasglobe