Distributed solar energy has potential to unlock micro enterprise and strengthen local value chains.
New Delhi: As India enters fourth week of lockdown, India’s strength and resilience is being put to test. Among other things, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of migrant labour and marginal rural communities. The pandemic has been a double whammy for the rural economy. First, livelihood opportunities in urban centres have vanquished overnight, creating a survival crisis for daily wage earners and many others. Second, with very little local value addition to farm produce, agrarian families are looking at a grim future. A centralised approach towards economic growth has led to congestion of resources, productivity and opportunities around urban and industrial clusters. Driven by economies of scale formula, risks such as labour exploitation, environmental concerns (ground water pollution, air pollution, etc), congestion of habitats have been generally ignored. Such congestions are vulnerable to external shocks, as has been the outcome of the on-going pandemic.
As Covid-19 cuts across boundaries of caste, colour, religion and nations, its emergence thrusts the need to reflect at development and economic growth metrics. A paradigm shift towards building societies based on resilience and sustainability is much desired. While building a resilient and sustainable nation is going to be a multi-faceted strategy, a distributed growth strategy which focuses on local value addition is a good starting point. A distributed economic growth model needs to take cognizance of local skill, resources and value chains. Focus needs to shift towards local productive infrastructure. Electricity being a key ingredient for any modern productive infrastructure, it often acts as a barrier to productive investments in rural and semi-urban areas. Distributed renewable energy and cleantech solutions can effectively bridge such energy gaps. This shall facilitate local value addition, while also creating demand for skilled and semi-skilled manpower. A major policy shift, distributed development approach will need capacitated local governance bodies to take the lead, along with other stakeholders.
Distributed solar energy has potential to unlock micro enterprise and strengthen local value chains. PM-KUSUM scheme aims to deploy 27.5 lakh solar pumps to support farmers to meet their irrigation needs. Similar interventions may also be supported across different applications such as processing of grains and condiments, cold storage, milk chilling and processing, crafts, and others. Cleantech entrepreneurs have battled long to develop and deploy innovative solutions without any consistent policy support or access to appropriate financing instruments. There are many case studies, where solar powered rice mills, poppadum machines, roti makers, smith machines have empowered small rural entrepreneurs, reducing drudgery and dependence on fossil fuels, and enhancing their incomes.
Let us for instance discuss the case for cold storage infrastructure in India. A study by The Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET) reported that India wastes a significant portion of its farm produce, with 16% of fruits and vegetables being wasted every year. According to another study, only 10-11% of fruits and vegetables get access to cold storage, leading to immense wastage and limiting the potential for export. Cold storage investments shall not only improve farmer income by allowing them to leverage better market prices, but also improve food security of the country – a factor of paramount importance for general health and disaster preparedness of India. Cleantech entrepreneurs have developed and commissioned cost-effective solutions which leverage thermal efficiencies, thermal storage and state-of-the-art variable frequency drive technology to integrate solar photovoltaic for cold storage and milk chilling. Such solutions are becoming increasingly popular, entering new markets, and often replacing diesel gensets in areas where grid supply is poor.
Healthcare is another key sector where distributed solar and cleantech solutions can disrupt the current paradigm. The sector suffers from poor last mile infrastructure, inefficient equipment and lack of trained medical resources to deliver quality services. District Level Household and Facility survey 2013, indicates that one out of every two primary health care centres (PHCs) in India suffer from unreliable power. Rural communities are typically dependent on government facilities at district headquarters for critical care. Patients often turn towards non-authorised medical practitioners, exposing themselves to a higher risk. In such a scenario, risk for spread of community infections going unnoticed is also quite high.
Many states have already adopted distributed solar solutions to augment their healthcare infrastructure. Complemented by efficient cleantech solutions for vaccine storage and essential medicines, along with powering critical equipment like surgical lights and radiant warmers, these solutions have saved thousands of lives. Powered by solar, boats serving as PHCs have enabled access to affordable and reliable health services for thousands of people residing in Majoli island of Brahmaputra river in Assam – an exemplary case highlighting the potential of distributed renewable energy.
Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) installed off-grid solar systems across 866 PHCs in 2013, considerably improving patient traffic and experience. Similar models have been emulated by other states such as Maharashtra and Tripura. Further, e-health solutions can deliver last mile contact-less healthcare services. Integration of state-of-the-art technology and distributed energy has the potential to disrupt quality and economics of last mile healthcare delivery, considerably augmenting the capacity of government infrastructure. They can also be used for preliminary consultation, screening and dissemination of information, aiding the government in better management of healthcare crises such as COVID-19 and other chronic issues plaguing our population.
Social entrepreneurs and innovators have laboured hard to establish the potential of cleantech solutions and distributed renewable energy. Integrating them with development policy calls for a significant shift in strategy and practice. DRE is not a magic wand that is going to solve our problems over night. Like any other sector, it also seeks access to finance (for consumers and entrepreneurs), regulation to protect consumer interests and assurance of quality, and above all policy consistency. But more than that, the state governments and concerned ministries need to inculcate clean energy practices into their modus operandi.
[Simran Grover is CEO of Bask Research Foundation and Huda Jaffer is Director at Selco Foundation]