Solar Mini-Grids Put India’s Villages in a New Light

India article photo

Project team member Brendon Mendonça leads a focus group discussion with villagers.

As we reported in our spring issue, SERC is part of an international team assessing opportunities to use solar power for rural electrification in India. Providing solar power via a central PV array and a village distribution system, or mini-grid, can be more cost-effective and durable than providing independent solar electric systems for each household.

This approach is already being used widely in rural India, but in most cases implemented by government agencies that provide heavy subsidies. Recent financial turmoil and growing public sector deficits in India demonstrate that these subsidies are not sustainable for the long term. Our team’s client, Indian company Azure Power, is interested in learning whether a for-profit firm can provide mini-grid service at a price that even lower income villagers can afford. Financial assistance for the study comes from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

We have now completed nearly all of our work on the three tasks we led: a literature survey of similar projects in other developing countries; an assessment of how Indian energy policy and regulations might affect such projects; and field studies to estimate energy demand and willingness to pay for electricity in candidate villages Azure Power has selected.

SERC staff including Tom Quetchenbach and Meg Harper made important contributions to the first two tasks. For the third task, I traveled to India for two weeks in June, accompanied by the project lead, Priya Sreedharan, from the San Francisco energy consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) and former HSU graduate student/SERC student assistant Brendon Mendonça. In New Delhi, we met up with principals and staff of India-based consultant Varesh Energy, completing our field team. After a meeting with Azure Power staff, the team headed out to the two field sites in Eastern and Northern India.

After orienting ourselves and meeting with village leaders, we set to work conducting house-by-house surveys and holding focus group meetings. We collected demographic data, inquired about people’s expectations and desires for household electrification, and asked the villagers to respond to hypothetical electrification scenarios and associated costs. The two villages we focused on are not “greenfield” sites without previous electrification experience. One of them had previously been electrified with a mini-grid that was later removed, while the other village has partial grid electrification. The desire for electricity and willingness to pay were encouraging in both cases although the details and conditions varied between the villages. These field findings will be integrated into the engineering and economic analysis that remains to be conducted in the project to thoroughly assess the feasibility of solar minigrids for these two sites.

We have delivered our task completion reports to Azure Power, and they have responded with special enthusiasm to the field study, calling it “useful, thorough, well-done, and enjoyable.” In the coming months, SERC will continue to provide support to other project partners as they complete the remaining tasks on this important feasibility study. Upon completion of the entire project, the USTDA will make the main findings of this field study and the overall feasibility project accessible to the public through a publicly available report.

Renewable Energy Mini-Grids

Over the past year, SERC has been collaborating on the Renewable Energy Mini-Grids for Improved Energy Access project with researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Energy and Resources Group (ERG) at University of California at Berkeley, Prayas Energy Group and Palang Thai. These efforts are in support of the Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership (Global LEAP) initiative associated with the Clean Energy Ministerial.

Renewable energy-based mini-grids offer a significant opportunity to increase access to reliable electricity services for rural populations throughout the developing world. A mini-grid is a village-scale electrical distribution system served by an isolated generator of up to a few hundred kW in capacity. Power on these grids is often provided by diesel generators, but can be supplied by local, renewable resources such as microhydro, solar, biomass or wind. Mini-grids offer an intermediate solution between stand-alone individual home power systems and main grid connection, and often prove to be more cost-effective and beneficial to the community than either of those alternatives.

Our team recently produced three documents to help inform delegates participating in the Mini-Grid Development roundtable discussion at the fourth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM4) in New Delhi in April. CEM4 brought together energy ministers from 23 of the world’s leading economies, along with business leaders, NGOs and academia to discuss policies, technologies, investment, and skills needed to achieve the CEM’s goal of “accelerating the transition to a global clean energy economy.” Our team’s contributions included:

A biomass mini-grid in India.

A biomass mini-grid in India.

 

SolarMiniGridJP

A solar mini-grid in India.

  • Sustainable Development of Renewable Energy Mini-Grids for Energy Access: A Framework for Policy Design, which provides a review and critique of mini-grid policies from several countries and offers recommendations for national policy design to support the development of mini-grids.
  • A Guidebook on Grid Interconnection and Islanded Operation of Mini-Grid Power Systems Up to 200 kW, which is intended to help meet the widespread need for guidance, standards, and procedures for interconnecting mini-grids with the central electric grid as rural electrification advances in developing countries.
  • Review of Strategies and Technologies for Demand-Side Management on Isolated Mini-Grids, which discusses different measures available to help with load management on isolated mini-grids.

These documents are available on the SERC website at www.schatzlab.org/projects/developingworld/minigrids.html.