India's rural poor are switching on to solar power

With a quarter of India's vast population having no access to electricity, thousands of homes are now receiving their first light through small companies and aid programmes thanks to solar panels.

Pushpa Gowda, centre, and her mother, Boommi Gowda, seated, shares a light moment with her family and neighbours the evening after they installed solar light in her house in Nada, on the outskirts of Mangalore. Rafiq Maqbool / AP Photo
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NADA // Boommi Gowda used to fear the night. Her vision fogged by glaucoma, she could not see by the dim glow of a kerosene lamp, so she avoided going outside where king cobras slithered freely and tigers carried off neighbourhood dogs.

But things have changed at Ms Gowda's home in the village of Nada. A solar-powered lamp pours white light across the front of the mud-walled hut she shares with her three grown children, a puppy and a newborn calf. Now she can cook, tend to her livestock and fetch water from a nearby well at night.

"I can see," Ms Gowda said, giggling with a 100-watt smile. In her 70 years, this is the first time she has had any kind of electricity.

Across India, thousands of homes are receiving their first light through small companies and aid programmes that are bypassing the central electricity grid to deliver solar panels to the rural poor. Those customers could provide the human energy that advocates of solar power have been looking for to fuel a boom in the next decade.

With two out of five of India's rural households lacking electricity and nearly a third of its 30 million agricultural water pumps running on subsidised diesel, "there is a huge market and a lot of potential," said Santosh Kamath, the executive director of the consulting firm KPMG in India. "Decentralised solar installations are going to take off in a very big way and will probably be larger than the grid-connected segment."

Next door to the Gowdas, 58-year-old Iramma, who goes by one name, frowned as she watched her neighbours light their home for the first time. At her house, electrical wiring dangles uselessly from the walls.

She said her family would wait for the grid. They have already paid an enterprising electrician who wired her house and promised service would come. They should not have to pay even more money for solar panels, she insisted.

But she softened after her 16-year-old son interrupted to complain he was struggling in school because he could not study at night unlike his classmates."The children are very anxious," she said. "They ask every day, 'Why don't we have power like other people?' So if the grid doesn't come in a month, maybe we will get solar, too."

Despite decades of robust economic growth, there are still at least 300 million Indians, a quarter of the 1.2 billion population, who have no access to electricity at home. Some use cow dung for fuel, but they more commonly rely on kerosene, which commands premium black-market prices when government supplies run out.

They scurry during daylight to finish housework and school lessons. They wait for grid connections that often never come.

When people who live day-by-day on wage labour choose solar, they are not doing it to reduce their carbon footprints. To them, solar technology presents an immediate solution to powering everything from light bulbs and heaters to water purifiers and pumps.

Harish Hande, the managing director of Selco Solar Light, said: "Their frustration is part of our motivation. Why are we so arrogant in deciding what the poor need and when they should get it?"

The company, which is owned by three foreign aid organisations, has fitted solar panels to 125,000 rural homes in Karnataka state, including the Gowdas', outside the west coast port of Mangalore.

Buying solar panels is more expensive than grid electricity, but for people off the grid it compares well with other options. One of Selco's single-panel solar systems goes for about US$360 (Dh1,322), the same as or less than a year's supply of black-market kerosene. And government subsidies mean customers pay less than $300.

In two years, India's government hopes the off-grid solar yield will quadruple to 200 megawatts, enough to power millions of rural Indian homes with modest energy needs.

The government has pushed for manufacturers and entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity. Its solar mission, an 11-year, $19 billion plan of credits, consumer subsidies and industry tax breaks to encourage investment, is fast becoming a centrepiece of its wider goal for renewable sources, including wind and small hydropower, to make up a fifth of India's supply by 2020.

Solar alone would provide 6 per cent, a significant leap, since it makes up less than 1 per cent of the 17 gigawatts India gets from renewables alone. The federal government is leading a massive campaign, titled Light a Billion Lives, to distribute 200 million solar-powered lanterns to rural homes.

Solar power is making inroads in smaller ways as well. Near Nada, some schools send students home with solar-charged flashlights to study at night, and the temple town of Dharmasthala, visited by 10,000 pilgrims a day, offers free water purified through solar filtration.

Another Hindu temple in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh boasts one of the world's largest solar-powered kitchens, preparing 30,000 meals a day, while western Gujarat state has experimented with a solar crematorium. Even in the Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh, where the sunshine is not India's brightest, Buddhist monks have installed solar panels to heat water at the 330-year Tawang Monastery.

Solar panels are becoming a must-have luxury item on dowry lists, even for those who have electricity but are annoyed by power cuts. And the capital of New Delhi requires hotels, hospitals and banquet halls to have solar water-heating systems.

India's government is desperate to expand its energy options as its fast-moving economy faces chronic electricity shortages. Last year's 10 per cent shortfall is expected to increase to 16 per cent this year, according to the Central Electricity Authority. Within 25 years, India must increase electricity production five-fold to keep up with its own development and demand, the World Bank says.

India is planning new nuclear plants and building more coal-firing plants, but it is also working to take better advantage of its renewable energy opportunities.

Western states such as Gujarat and Rajasthan receive the full brunt of the sun and are luring big projects for solar fields to plug into the grid.

But most new grid capacity will be sucked up by industry, leaving little for the poor who live in off-grid desert outcrops, mountain hamlets and jungle villages such as Nada. For them, the surest way to get electricity any time soon may be to get a solar panel and make it themselves.