Solar home systems light a new path for rural electricity

Rob Stoner and Harish Hande talk distributed solar power in the New York Times.

solar home system karnataka india

By Max Bearak | New York Times

The idea behind Selco, and other companies like it, is to create a business model that will help some of the 1.2 billion people in the world who don’t have electricity to leapfrog the coal-dependent grid straight to renewable energy sources.

About a quarter of the world’s off-the-grid people, or 300 million or so, live in India, mostly in remote, rural communities like Paradeshappanamatha, or in informal urban settlements. Hundreds of millions more get electricity for only a few hours a day. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to achieve universal electrification in India by the end of 2022. His main effort is adding hundreds of new coal plants, which have contributed to near-apocalyptic pollution levels across large swaths of the country.

On the other hand, Mr. Modi has also promised investments that would significantly increase production from renewable sources. Partly to that end, Mr. Modi and President François Hollande of France started an “International Solar Alliance” during the recent climate talks in Paris. With an initial pledge of $30 million from India, Mr. Modi said that the eventual goal was $1 trillion in global funding for solar technology development by 2030.

Solar power accounts for just 1 percent of India’s current electricity production, mostly through large plants that contribute power to the grid, but a generation of Indian energy entrepreneurs is out to prove that a faster, cleaner and ultimately more economical route to universal electrification is through solar home systems.

“Why is it always about a grid?” asked Harish Hande, a co-founder of Selco India. It was one of the first of more than 40 companies now offering solar home systems in India.

Selco systems typically include a small panel connected to a battery that stores enough power to run one or more lights, phone chargers and, with higher wattage options, some small appliances. Since its inception in 1995, Selco India has sold 318,400 solar home systems, and has provided power systems to almost 10,000 schools, hospitals and other institutions, almost all in Karnataka.

“Solar home systems have been around for a long time by now, and they are a successful model,” said Robert Stoner, the director of the Tata Center for Technology and Design at M.I.T., which works directly with Selco and others, including the Indian government, on renewable technology development. “Their challenge is that they cost a lot — far more than the average person has, even a relatively well-off person.”

While Mr. Hande, Mr. Stoner and others try to iron out problems like these, they acknowledge that solar home systems don’t represent a complete solution to energy poverty, if only because it is so intertwined with the precariousness of the lives of his customers.

“With S.H.S.’s, at the end of the day, you are just replacing an existing cost with a better technology,” Mr. Stoner said. “Having electric lighting at home might allow a child to study for longer hours, so you are introducing an indirect productivity benefit, but it doesn’t help you pay next month’s loan.”

“Still,” he said, “that first kilowatt of electricity someone gets is worth an awful lot because they go from darkness to light, with a very small amount of energy.”


Photo: Kuni Takahashi for the New York Times