Kartikeya Singh

Of Sun Gods and Solar Energy in India

Politics, capitalism, and energy poverty are combining in strange ways across India. The result looks like progress - sometimes.

My exploration has revealed that firms in the business of deploying off-grid solar technologies in India are finding ways to work in or around a flawed regulatory regime. Most of the firms selling off-grid solar products are doing so in urban and peri-urban areas with grid access. In some ways, then, the market for such technologies may depend on the continued unreliability of the grid. Rural areas face more fundamental challenges that seem inadequately addressed by government policies and development assistance. I’ve learned that getting more locally embedded entrepreneurs into the game of deploying solar micro-grids is an important element of success stories. But many micro-grid companies are reluctant to invest in rural areas without having a clear sense of potentially competing national policies for building out the central electricity grid. To address this uncertainty, some states, such as Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, are starting to experiment with policies that clarify how micro-grids may work in tandem with the central grid system.

On financing, if the government continues to provide end-user subsidies for consumers to purchase solar technologies, then it must also accelerate financial inclusion programs that help the rural poor to open bank accounts. But another option may be to provide financing for those businesses that find innovative ways to make access to solar energy easy and reliable without subsidies. Examples include pay-as-you-go solar energy services or the ability to make mobile phone payments for however much local, micro-grid electricity consumers want to consume. Regulations could also encourage crowdfunding to support the solar entrepreneurs who are deploying the best technologies with the best financial models. At a time when incomes are rising and the cost of technology is falling, financial innovation in the deployment of solar technologies remains important because it is still unclear how poor people are making purchasing decisions.

India is angling to be a world leader in solar energy. It has indicated its commitment not only through domestic political targets, but also by introducing and leading the International Solar Alliance, launched at the November 2015 Paris climate conference. But, as the stories I heard make clear, solar technologies are being deployed across India thanks to innovative entrepreneurs who can manage working in difficult and often uncertain regulatory regimes. What these entrepreneurs need from India is not hyped political targets, but policy coherence, quality standards, better training, better access to testing facilities, access to more finance, and better support for incubation or acceleration of their ideas.

Solar energy in India is not a story of a battle between decentralized, renewable energy technologies and centralized grid distribution. Both approaches to providing energy in a nation as diverse and complex as India offer valuable lessons and opportunities. More important is India’s need to get its people access to energy to maximize their ability to thrive in the changing climate of the future. How this energy is delivered will take many forms and, perhaps, require the assistance of many gods.


Kartikeya Singh is an IDRC Fellow at the Center for Global Development and Deputy Director and Fellow of the India States initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.



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