Ask a layman, is electric power available in the rural areas of India? The answer is a simple No! However, if you check the recent government data, a shocking 98% of villages in India are already electrified! A recent visit to a few villages in my hometown confirmed my doubts – either a village just has power lines passing through it but no supply to households or a village gets power in the midnight when no one can use it.
As per the Indian government’s rural electrification policy, a village is deemed ‘electrified’ if basic infrastructure such as distribution transformer and distribution lines has been set up in the inhabited locality. Nowhere does the definition talks about actual electricity connection or its supply to a village household. So statistically India is a developed country with all basic amenities available to villages!
People who complain about government inability to supply power need to realize that it is near impossible to supply grid power to remote villages. A power grid can only supply towns and villages that are built in a cluster; the more long drawn the electric lines are, the more wastage of power in transmission & distribution. Moreover, when power companies are unable to supply well-paying urban areas during peak hours, how will they do it for impoverished rural areas?
Gram Oorja, a social enterprise based in Pune thought about this dilemma seriously – Remote villages are inaccessible so there is a higher cost in laying power lines; villagers are poor so they cannot pay power bills; government schemes are ineffective since power supply is in deficit. They felt that corporate CSR programs can fund such economically unviable projects, but villagers tend to misuse any equipment given to them in charity. Further, one solution like solar power cannot provide power throughout the day.
The answer lines in micro power grids managed by local enterprises. If a village produces its own power, distributes it to households and collects revenues to be sustainable, can there be a better model for rural electrification… So the Gram Oorja team of Anshuman Lath, Sameer Nair, Prasad Kulkarni, Rahul Singh created an interesting model of corporate-social partnership that could solve this peculiar problem. They created a micro grid with hybrid power sources that is funded by corporate charity funds.
The village chosen for intervention was Darewadi a picturesque hamlet nestled in the Sahydri Mountains in Maharashtra. Darewadi was a tiny remote hamlet of just 39 households and 220 people located 140km from Pune and 2km away from a motorable road. Gram Oorja convinced Bosch Solar Energy AG to fund this pilot project to establish a business model that works efficiently and is sustainable as well. Shakti Foundation was the nodal NGO that provided consultation and guidance.
So a decentralized solar power plant with a capacity of 9.4 kilowatts was set up in 2012. A biogas unit was also set up as backup power provider when sunlight was not available. Further, a central battery bank and an inverter manages power fluctuations, leading to better load management. Maintenance of this system is done centrally, so that it is cost effective.
In order to ensure that villagers have a sense of ownership of the project, they were encouraged to get involved in setting up the unit and managing it everyday. A village trust was created in Darewadi to supply power to households and collect bills every month. Apart from electrifying households, the microgrid also provides power to a flour grinding mill and two water pumps. These are managed by the village trust and their revenue is deposited in a bank account as a corpus fund.
The Darewadi model of Build-Operate-Transfer proved beyond doubt that a hybrid micro-grid can function in a decentralized manner without any government intervention. Emboldened by this result, Gram Oorja soon rolled out this model in more than 10 villages in rural Maharashtra. Apart from power grids, a biogas cooking grid has also been set up in Kolvan village in Mulshi, Pune district. Each of these micro-grid projects cost around INR2.5-3 million, which is recovered from power bill revenues over a period of 5-7 years.
Today, Gram Oorja Micro-grid has an installed capacity of 45.7kW serving 230 households across 10 villages. The company is well funded by various charity foundations such as Bosch Solar, Sir Dorab Tata Trust, ICICI Bank, Rotary Club and Grundfos Foundation. When the Build-Operate-Transfer model has been implemented in a big way in numerous mega infrastructure projects, why can’t we use the same idea to provide power to needy villages?