Rural electrification: Empowering the masses

Though there are no millennium development goals for energy, energy access is essential to achieve goals like poverty eradication, primary education and empowering women, says Rajiv Chhibber.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2012 as 'The International Year of Sustainable Energy for All' in recognition that access to affordable modern energy services is essential for sustainable development and for the achievement of the millennium development goals (MDGs). 'The International Year of Sustainable Energy for All' presents a valuable opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of increasing access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Energy security and energy access are the main catalysts for poverty reduction and improving living conditions in rural areas besides promoting national and international economic growth. Though there are no millennium development goals for energy, energy access is essential to achieve many goals like eradication of extreme poverty and hunger through livelihood generation, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Rural electrification is one of the key drivers in facilitating economic and socio-cultural development. Distributed power generation is one option to implement rural electrification schemes. The viability of the technological solution, strength of institutional innovations, robustness of designed financing models and effectiveness of enabling mechanisms for communities to derive direct and indirect benefits from electricity services are some of the facets of this challenge.

Through government and non-government efforts renewable energy technologies are used in a variety of applications. However, there are very few dissemination models that are entrepreneur-driven and incorporate innovations in service delivery. The viability of such models relies on their ability to provide income opportunities on both the demand and supply side and their flexibility to bundle a variety of energy-related and energy-driven services such as mobile telephone charging, water purification and sale and servicing of energy-efficient appliances. These models provide a platform for public-private-people partnerships. Against this background, energy interventions based on alternate technologies, such as solar, are relevant and viable. Our organisation's Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) project created viable enterprises on the supply side targeting women entrepreneurs in the region, to enable a large population in un-electrified villages to use solar PV electricity. Remote villages, which suffered from chronic energy shortages now feel financial independence and a sense of pride arising from the newly-acquired skill and confidence. Apart from providing reliable and ensured lighting to households at an affordable rate, this model also facilitates entrepreneurial development among rural communities. The solar charging platform apart from providing other essential services, also provides at the grassroots-level livelihood activities through access to lighting.So far, LaBL has led to the creation of 750 direct green jobs across over 742 villages through rural entrepreneurship and to the evolution of more than 100 strong women-led self help groups.

Again over the past decade, with India becoming one of the leading innovators in information and communication technologies (ICT), serving the rural user has become a priority. Rural ICT programmes, especially solar-powered ICT-based rural knowledge centres, have been set up on a large scale. The business model is based on three guiding principles - First is the use of energy-efficient hardware and appliances, including locally-available eco-friendly building material wherever possible, which helps in reducing electricity consumption, secondly hybrid power supply solution using solar PV and grid as two main sources. This hybrid system is based on an integrated solar PV-based power supply system that has been developed and customised by our organisation specifically for rural ICT kiosks. And finally, bundling of services related to employment and livelihoods schemes, decentralised energy, health, water and overall sustainable development.

Since the 1990s, our organisation has been developing small capacity (10-20 kWe) biomass gasifiers that run on 100 per cent producer gas engines, which are ideally suited for electrification of remote locations as they provide enough electricity for domestic lighting, street-lights and some productive applications such as rice millingiand water pumping in a small village of about 80-100 households. The system provides electricity to two light points in every household, lights up street lights and runs a flour grinder. The initiative is being replicated in several villages across the country.

In the context of global warming and climate change, ways to access energy in a sustainable fashion will have to be found and all this can only be realised if we undertake initiatives like these at the local level. Such initiatives provide a platform for companies, corporations and business houses to channel their social responsibility and commitments in a manner that catalyses the socio-economic growth of rural communities. The synergies of such commitments ensure that power is provided to empower people and hence conferring to the MDG's.

Tags: economic growth, energy access, renewable energy, rural electrification