Close to touching the edge of a rainbow

Technological advancements have made renewable energy-based lighting systems so cost-effective that the latter can now be introduced in villages, where there is no electricity and no prospect of grid-based power.

India faces a range of imperatives to transform our society and the very structure of the Indian economy. Clearly, the most important challenge for our country is the existence of large-scale poverty, which is caused by a multiplicity of persistent drivers.

Emphasis on cleanliness and the provision for sanitation across the country is a basic and essential attempt to ensure that the people of India end the degrading practice of defecation in the open. Swachch Bharat Abhiyan and access to proper sanitation will, at the same time, bring about effective control of disease, that is spread by unsanitary habits and practices.

It is sad that our country, after seven decades of independence has yet to tackle the most basic aspect of civilised living, wherein countries in our neighbourhood have done better.

An extremely important challenge, which is also a characteristic of poverty in India, is the widespread lack of access to clean and modern forms of energy and its use across the country. A total of almost 300 million people have no access to electricity in India and, therefore, almost eight decades after Thomas Edison died, many have not experienced the benefit of an electric bulb in their homes.

Those who cannot enjoy the benifits of electricity, use poor quality biomass for cooking, in ill-designed and primitively constructed stoves. While successive Governments have taken efforts to bring electric power to rural areas in this country, there is little hope that modern forms of energy will light up poor homes or provide clean and efficient cooking options in the foreseeable future.

Yet, the benefits of clean and efficient energy systems for households is incalculable. Pollution from kerosene lanterns and inferior cooking stoves burning low quality biomass has serious health effects, leading to chronic sickness and death on a large scale.

The World Health Organisation estimated that low- and middle income countries in South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution. About a million of these were estimated as having taken place in India, a figure that is perhaps an understatement.

In 1997, The Energy and Resources Institute estimated, on the basis of a study of several hundred women, who suffer from the most serious and prolonged exposure to cooking stove and lantern emissions, that almost 2.5 million people died annually as a result of air pollution in India, with a large majority being victims of indoor air pollution.

With advances that have taken place in renewable energy technology and cost reductions that have been achieved in recent years, there is a strong case for a major expansion of renewable energy-based lighting system in villages where electricity has not reached and where there seems no prospects of grid-based power reaching them in the foreseeable future.

TERI's lighting a billion lives campaign has not only covered over 3,000 villages in India, Africa and other countries, but has also provided a model for private sector organisations and NGOs to market photovoltaic-based power for clean and efficient lighting in rural homes. Sizeable efforts are also required to develop and disseminate clean cooking stoves which are capable to provide almost smoke-free combustion with substantial improvement in efficiency, and which will also have the benefit of reducing the demand for biomass fuels, including firewood or pellets made from agricultural residue.

There is an urgent and growing need to focus on the problem of household energy systems in rural areas as well as in the homes of the urban poor. Within a larger context, this has to be a part of an ambitious transformation of the energy sector in this country which moves us towards major expansion of renewable energy supply and use.

Quite apart from decentralised systems in both rural as well as urban locations, including solar rooftop systems, India can become a leader in large centralised renewable energy supply technologies.

However, this will require much greater dissemination of knowledge in the regulatory commissions dealing with energy in India, particularly in the States, and analysis of policy options driven by projections of short-term technology improvements and costs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2011, had brought out a special report on renewable energy sources and climate change mitigation, which clearly revealed the cost advantage of renewables in specific uses. Since then, the cost advantage of renewables has, if anything, become much stronger. There is a need to build a future on these trends which are overwhelmingly in favour of a much greater share for renewable energy supply.

Ten years ago, it was generally projected that the photovoltaic panels would compete with conventional forms of electricity supply once the cost would go below a dollar per watt. Today's projections indicate that by 2017, costs will come down to about 35 US cents per watt. The benefit of ensuring larger-scale renewable energy use in rural homes also lies in the outcome of changed mindsets.

Once decentralised energy in the home becomes commonplace, rural communities will see the potential of decentralised energy production for other uses as well, including processing of vegetables, fruits and other produce as well as micro-enterprises of various types. Renewable energy use will also enhance healthcare facilities, because it will become possible to store medicines and vaccines in remote areas. Another major benefit for rural areas lies in the use of computers which will enable access to knowledge and acquire skills through the Internet.

The current Government deserves applause for setting a target of 1,75,000 megawatt of power capacity from renewables by 2022, consisting of 1,00,000 mw of solar, 60,000 mw of wind, 10,000 from biomass and 5,000 from small hydro.

We are clearly touching the edge of a rainbow, which promises to bring about a major transformation of energy supply and use in this country. But the Government has to tackle this with professional excellence because, the success of any programme will require restructuring of existing institutions, equipping them with new knowledge and expertise and motivating the public to move towards new technology.