India’s energy crisis

Can India modernize its manufacturing economy and supply electricity to its growing population without relying heavily on coal—and quite possibly destroying the global climate?


By Richard Martin | MIT Technology Review

On the wall of the hut a single LED lightbulb glows softly, connected through the roof to a black cable that stretches to a 100-watt solar panel on the roof of a concrete house nearby. It is a direct outcome of the policies of the central government, a thousand miles to the north in Delhi. Appapur is a “solar village,” one of the showcases for the government’s drive to bring solar power to small, unelectrified villages across India.

It’s a huge task. At least 300 million of India’s 1.25 billion people live without electricity, as the villagers of Appapur did until a year ago. Another quarter-billion or so get only spotty power from India’s decrepit grid, finding it available for as little as three or four hours a day. The lack of power affects rural and urban areas alike, limiting efforts to advance both living standards and the country’s manufacturing sector.

Ultimately, some combination of distributed solar power, local microgrids, and large renewable-power plants will be needed to address India’s energy needs over the next 50 years. You can’t extend the grid to every village and hut in India, but you also can’t develop and operate a 21st-century manufacturing base using unpredictable distributed solar power. The key will be figuring out what works on a state-by-state, city-by-city, village-by-village level.

That work is already being carried out in the state of Bihar, by a team of researchers connected to the Tata Center for Technology and Design at MIT. Bihar is typical of India’s rural states: it has more than 100 million people, less than one-fifth of whom have access to reliable electricity. The state discom is more or less bankrupt, subsidized electricity bills are artificially low, and electricity losses on the grid are close to 50 percent. The reach of the grid is random, says Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at MIT and head of the Reference Electrification Model, which is focused on planning electricity access for India and other developing countries.

Photo: Sami Siva

Condensed and edited by Anna Norman