Energy access and sustainable development in India
By Dhruv Suri, Kaustav Sood and Amartya Mukherjee
‘Dark Room’: The quintessential children’s game at every sleepover. It’s a curious past-time, characterized by frantic whispering and the sound of rushing feet as children worm themselves into the most inconspicuous spaces in the hope of not being found. The seeker enters a room plunged into darkness and, with the curtains drawn, the only light is that which seeps in through the choked slit at the bottom of the door. There is a palpable tension in the air, a pulse waiting to be found, as the seeker hunts the hidden. The game continues until the seeker either finds everyone or gives up the attempt. At this point, the light is turned back on and everyone gets ready for the next round.
It’s interesting to see how disposable light is to these children. It comes in such abundance that darkness is merely a trifle to be played with. Something so temporary, that even at night, it has no lasting power. After all, life continues for them, with only the flick of a switch.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury to turn their lights back on.
The World Bank estimates that more than 200 million people still lack access to electricity in India . Indeed, every night, residents of almost 18000 villages in India find themselves unwilling participants in a never-ending game of “Dark Room”. With uncertain moonlight as the only source of illumination, millions of lives come to a standstill, lying in wait for the sun to rise the following morning.
It’s very strange then, that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced in April 2018 that the Indian Government had met its target of one hundred percent rural electrification . Clearly, there is something amiss.
Why this disparity?
The government deems a village electrified if power cables from the centralized grid reach a transformer within the village and power 10% of the houses, buildings and other public places. Under this definition of “electrification”, the Government of India rural electrification initiative, ‘Saubhagya’ reports that 99.93 percent of India’s villages have been electrified.
However, this definition is a flawed one, and masks not only the real demand for electricity in India but also the steps needed to address it. There is, after all, a significant difference between having a village merely connected to power and having it supplied with power. A connection is simply a physical act, a check-mark on a page soon forgotten. Provision of supply, on the other hand, is a long-standing effort and necessitates the provision of clean and affordable power to all or almost all households in a village, at a steady rate, so as to be available as and when needed with minimal interference via long power-cuts.
Whilst such efforts towards increasing the equity of electricity access for the Indian population have increased considerably over the past three years, affordability and provision via sustainable sources are still illusory goals.
One reason for this is the flawed applications of tariffs. Though DISCOMs and other power suppliers do provide concessions in electricity tariffs to individuals who have been recognized as ‘below-poverty-line’, they mandate the presentation of formal identification that states the same. The problem with this is that those living in poverty-stricken conditions rarely have the required documents, leading to regular electricity tariffs being imposed on vulnerable households.
Small agriculture cooperatives, public schools, Anganwadi shelters, and communal facilities usually do not have the finances to support a metered connection with regular tariffs. Recognizing the need to ensure adequate energy supply instead of connections should be placed at the vanguard for rural electrification efforts. As we progress towards connecting India’s millions to the grid, organizations and institutions should also place emphasis on the need for uniform concessions on the basis of demographic information in place of formal identification.
Increased distribution is, however, only the first part of the picture. It may be that in successfully electrifying rural India, we are replacing one problem with another.
An energy-consuming nation
In 2017, total generation reached 1600 TWh, making India the third-largest producer of energy in the world. 16 percent of this was generated by renewables, while coal-fired plants accounted for 74 percent of the total energy generated .
This generation is steadily rising as according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2018-by 2040, India’s energy demand is expected to more than double.
Conventionally, the factors that are thought to contribute most to this surge in demand are rapid industrialization and population growth. However, an additional and immediate factor-often overlooked- is glaring at us right in the face: rural electrification.
With the creation of a newly empowered and electrified population segment- one that will gradually realize the benefits of increased education and higher incomes – an immediate demand for electricity will be created. This demand will come in two phases. The first will be the demand due to a preliminary connection. The second phase will be driven by the inevitable adoption of electrical appliances and services by the electrified rural population, at an exponential rate.
This will put an incredible load on our national grid and our environment, both of which are unsuited to disruption of this kind.
Thus, it seems that schemes like Saubhagya do not account for the ramifications of their own success.
In response to the growing energy demands and its ecological impact, a number of organizations including DISCOMs have changed their outlook towards conventional coal-based methods of energy production and are transitioning towards sustainable alternatives such as solar-PV and wind as well as other non-conventional hybrid renewable energy systems.
The Government of India has also established a number of schemes, fostering a plethora of partnerships with entrepreneurs, distribution companies and consumers in order to reach a renewable-coal equilibrium of sorts.
However, even if we operate on the assumptions that the share of renewables will increase at a rate that will match that of the incoming rise in demand, and that breakthrough innovations in technology will be forthcoming, time will be needed to update the national grid and make provisions for the integration of renewable assets into it. What’s more, in urban and peri-urban areas on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, aging power grids are currently incapable of absorbing population growth and are set to face chronic blackouts in the coming decade.
There is no certainty of being able to overcome these obstacles, however, with the sun already beaming down more energy in an hour than the world uses in a year and wind energy pegged to be able to meet a third of the global energy demand by 2040, there is hope on the horizon. Whether emerging economies such as India will be able to ensure adequate provisions for the adoption of the same, remains to be seen.
 The World Bank Databank, accessed August 30, 2019
 Modi Announces '100% Village Electrification', But 31 Million Indian Homes Are Still In The Dark, Forbes, 07 May 2018
 International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2018
Picture credit: Kaustav Sood, 2019
About Dhruv Suri
Dhruv Suri is currently pursuing his Bachelor degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the Manipal Institute of Technology, India. His research on renewable energy systems, wind energy, in particular, is motivated by India's impetus towards sustainable energy production and energy equity. He enjoys exploring and developing innovative products at the grassroots level and has actively been involved in a number of community development activities. In 2017, his innovative mHealth application 'VaxiBead' placed first in the New Zealand India Sustainability Challenge, organized by Education New Zealand and TERI. Presently, his research revolves around the nexus between technology, policy, and implementation. Dhruv will be working as a visiting student researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology D-Lab in Boston this fall.