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Addressing energy poverty in India

It is little more than a year since the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed to at the UN General Assembly. SDGs are a set of 17 goals that are intended to dramatically improve lives across the world by 2030. A major goal is SDG7 which aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. In fact, it could be considered a prerequisite for meeting all of the SDGs.

Mainstreaming SDG7 would vary across countries, and it is important to develop national priorities in alignment with the SDGs. Here I discuss two critical indicators —access to electricity and cleaner cooking options for all.

Unaddressed power issues

In India, the progress made towards achievement of SDG7 appears remarkable with 97 per cent of the villages having been provided with electricity. The Government has launched the UJWALA scheme to provide 50 million underprivileged households with LPG. A deeper analysis, however, raises concerns.

Considering the decadal population growth, the annual growth of rural households is estimated at approximately 2 per cent, while the average annual growth in the number of households being electrified is around 3 per cent. Government estimates suggest that there are about 58 million un-electrified households, and these households will be covered under ‘Power for All’ by 2019.

However, it appears from Grameen Vidyutikaran (GARV) data, that the annual growth of households since the last census in 2011 has not been taken into consideration. If we consider annual growth, the number of un-electrified households is almost 23 per cent higher. This clearly indicates that the pace of household electrification is much slower than desired.

Census and GARV data for States indicate that the access rate in Madhya Pradesh dropped from 62 per cent in 2001 to around 57 per cent in 2016. In Assam, household electrification increased by a mere 1 per cent from 2001 to 2016, and is now at 35 per cent. On the other hand, West Bengal grew from 20 per cent in 2001 to 95 per cent in 2016.

The key challenge is how to connect and sustain un-electrified households in the laggard States; the households are mostly in villages where grid infrastructure may already be present. Often, government records may not truly reflect the social structure. There are several un-electrified hamlets where only the main village has electricity, and the hamlets are shown as electrified. Such habitations need to be identified and covered under government schemes or through renewable energy-based mini-grids involving the private sector. However, the private sector has to be adequately incentivised.

While progress on village electrification has been relatively fast, intensification has been slow. In most villages, there is a thin line between below poverty line households, who are provided free connections, and above poverty line households. One way to bridge this could be to finance the wiring, metering and connection costs of households that are interested but do not have the financial means. Another option could be to use the deprivation framework of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census to select households for subsidised connection.

Cleaner cooking

Another important aspect of SDG7 is to ensure access to clean cooking options. While UJWALA has made considerable progress, TERI studies indicate fuel stacking is a major issue in most villages.

Most families tend to use LPG for emergency cooking rather than for cooking their major meals. One reason for this could be the higher expenses incurred for using commercial fuels. Considering the subsidised price of an LPG cylinder, a family of 5-6 may have to spend around Rs 500 a month to cook their meals. With nearly three-quarters of all rural households earning Rs 5,000 or less, according to the last SECC, spending anything above 10 per cent of total income on fuel will make them energy-poor. While there is no denying that all households have to be provided with cleaner fuels to reduce household air pollution, what is equally important is to ensure a substantial increase in rural income so that part of the added income is used to meet clean energy needs.

The promotion of LPG should be complemented by that of electric induction cookstoves. Both cost and fuel expenditure in the case of induction cookstoves are almost the same as for LPG. Using induction cookstoves will ensure optimal use of the electricity infrastructure being created.

With most power plants presently running at lower capacity than their potential, electrifying the cooking energy demand will ensure higher plant load factor, better revenue sustainability for discoms and prevent cost towards creating a supply chain for cooking fuel. Star-rated energy-efficient cookstoves can also be promoted. With higher efficiency, lower electricity consumption and no emission of harmful pollutants, this will be a viable rural solution towards achieving SDG7.

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