An Inclusive and Sustainable Approach to Rural Electrification in India: Case of Decentralized Renewable Systems
Dr. Gopal K Sarangi is Assistant Professor. Department of Policy Studies TERI University, New Delhi
NEW DELHI, May 6 2016 (IPS) – The Declaration of 2014- 2024 as the ‘Decade of Sustainable Energy for All’ by the United Nations (UN) is a clear manifestation of the importance attached to energy in the process of development. Setting ‘Universal Access to Energy’ as one of the goals of UN’s ‘SE4All’ initiative is reiteration of the fact that access to energy constitutes an essential ingredient in the process of economic development of any country. This underscores the complex and inextricable link that exists between energy and sustainable development.
Often the prevailing electricity regime is ridiculed for causing such distortions and anomalies. The existing regime, which relies on the centralized supplied systems, is argued to have widened social inequities, caused irreparable environmental damages, and nurtured a culture of inertia and inefficiency. Of late, decentralized renewable energy systems have emerged globally as an effective alternative mode to supplement the efforts of grid based centralized electricity systems. In particular, developing countries are looking forward to it not as an engineering solution to the energy access challenges, rather as an integral component of rural community life, considering the larger context of overall rural development efforts.
While technological advancements, in particular, solar PV technologies, have provided the necessary impetus to decentralized renewable energy systems to flourish, accommodative policy space has also been created in recent years to accelerate the deployment of these systems. A multitude of drivers such as threats posed by climate change, issues around energy security and the urgency to provide minimum basic level of energy at a universal scale, have led to reshaping of the policy and regulatory landscape governing the decentralized energy systems. Though, India has a long and extended history of renewable energy based decentralized energy systems, the efforts in early years were sporadic and piecemeal in nature and characterized by lack of integrated approach. However, enactment of the Electricity Act 2003 ushered a new era in the decentralized energy promotion in India with its specific focus on de-licensing of electricity generation and distribution for rural areas. This was further boosted by the Rural Electrification Policy 2006 and the National Tariff Policy 2006.
A recent amendment of the National Tariff Policy 2006 is a clear signal of the furtherance of efforts at the policy level to accelerate the promotion of decentralized renewable energy generation in the country. Given the constitutional recognition of energy as a concurrent item, equal emphasis is also laid by provincial governments to drive the decentralized renewable energy systems as means of electrification. In fact some states like Chhattisgarh have taken proactive initiatives by promoting decentralized renewable energy systems through dedicated support from the state government and by exemplary leadership skills by state nodal agencies.
In the last decade or so, multiple management and delivery models have evolved in the domain of decentralized renewable energy systems in the country. While on the one hand extreme electricity services are provided by government agencies, largely through the provisioning of government subsidies, as a ‘merit good’, on other hand, electricity services are increasingly perceived as ’economic commodity’ with private investors entering to this market as service providers .
TERI University, being a research led university has been striving hard since its genesis, not only to enrich the frontier of sustainable development (SD) education in breadth and depth, but also to intensively engage its’ students to practice the ideals of SD through various action based research projects. In this direction, TERI University, through a funding support from EPSRC/DFID, was engaged in a collaborative research project with five other universities/institutes in UK and India to develop a sustainable and viable business model for decentralized energy projects and to demonstrate the model in the field.
Odisha, one of the least electrified states located in the eastern part of India, was chosen as the ground to experiment the model. The model was demonstrated in two different socio-economic settings and was structured around two different delivery approaches. Following a scientific approach, two clusters of villages were selected to be electrified through this project. The chosen villages were located in geographically difficult locations and had little prospect of getting electrified through centralized supply systems. While one cluster i.e. Rajang village cluster in the Dhenkanal district of Odisha is located in a reserve forest, the other cluster i.e. Burangia village cluster in the Kandhmal district of Odisha is completely cut off from the mainstream development through difficult geography surrounded by a river. Solar PV technology, given its’ modular features, was preferred over other technologies as a technological option to set up decentralized renewable energy mini-grids in the both locations.
In case of Rajanga cluster, a Village Energy Committee (VEC) was created to operate and manage the project with support from a local NGO called the Institute for Research and Action on Development Alternatives (IRADA), stationed at Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha. Local administration was entrusted the responsibility to support the project operation and management in case of Burangia village cluster project in Kandhamal district. Both the projects have been operating successfully for more than a year and lighting up the lives of people located in such remote and geographically difficult regions echoing the spirit of UN’s SE4ALL goals.