[Podcast] GigaWhat: Transforming lives with decentralised clean energy

  • Lack of energy access also limits the rural economy. Decentralised renewable energy (DRE) solutions are creating an infrastructure for rural entrepreneurs.
  • DRE solutions have helped women develop small industrial units, improve their financial stability and generate employment.
  • The experts participating in this episode of GigaWhat state that spreading awareness and building trust among people about DRE products, providing more access to finance to purchase DRE equipment, and creating a market and distribution network for the products are essential to ensure the success of the DRE ecosystem.

In rural India, decentralised renewable energy options – primarily solar power – are creating livelihood and business opportunities. Decentralised renewable energy systems are primarily independent of the central power grid, and the energy is generated close to its area of use. To address daily issues that arise out of lack of power, startups and organisations are creating and modifying decentralised renewable energy (DRE) solutions in India’s villages, burgeoning towns and metros.

Mongabay-India has reported on the success stories of DRE, such as the case study of a sugarcane farmer from the Karaknalli village of the Bidar district of Karnataka, installing a solar fencing machine to protect the sugarcane crop from wild boar; and also about the challenges in DRE while investigating why Dharnai village in Bihar, promoted as the first solar village of the state, went defunct.

In this episode of GigaWhat, Mongabay-India Contributing Editor and the podcast host, Mayank Aggarwal, speaks with startup founders and managers to learn the innovations happening in the DRE sector that are helping to boost the livelihoods of people in India’s hinterlands.

Manish Kumar (Staff Reporter, Mongabay-India), Ananth Aravamudan (Powering Livelihoods), Kunal Vaid (Director, Resham Sutra) and Abhishek Pathak (Founder, Greenwear) discuss the need to bring innovative DRE solutions to the market and highlight the positive impacts of the DRE ecosystem and the innovative solutions by startups, on the rural economy and livelihoods.

Listen here:

GigaWhat podcast episode 6: Decentralised clean energy systems and rural livelihoods


Full transcript:

You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India.

Manish Kumar (MK): I visited a small village in the Nuapada district of Odisha when it was electrified for the first time, with solar energy, through a decentralised model.

Mayank Aggarwal (MA): That’s Mongabay-India staff reporter, Manish Kumar. He visited the village in 2018, the year it got an electricity connection.

The ‘decentralised model’ he referred to is a small-scale energy generation unit that delivers energy locally. In this case, a cluster of solar panels was installed in the village.

Decentralised renewable energy systems are primarily independent of the central power grid. The off-grid rooftop solar panels we see over houses are also an example of a decentralised model.

If you are listening to us from a metro, you would have several things to worry about, but electricity might not be one of them.

But imagine the things at stake due to the lack of energy access.

Education, security, healthcare and so on…

Lack of energy access also limits the rural economy. But reliable electricity creates an infrastructure for rural entrepreneurs and gives people a chance to work on their aspirations.

Decentralised renewable energy applications, or as we’ll call them in this episode, ‘DRE applications’, have done just that in several parts of rural India.

Kunal Vaid (KV): It’s almost like they’re making their own power. And then they’re using their own power to run their own machines.

MA: Women in Jharkhand are using solar-powered silk spinning machines to improve their lives. A group of women in Odisha uses a solar-run lac processing unit to produce edible oil.

Solar energy holds the most prominent share in India’s DRE capacity – solar irrigation pumps, solar dryers, solar flour mills, and solar cold storage units. However, DRE livelihood applications could also be run by wind, micro-hydro and biomass.

According to one report, there’s a market of around 53 billion US$ for such applications. While DRE is not a silver bullet for all rural energy and employment issues, it can play a significant role in the right direction.

MA: In this episode, we’ll look at some DRE applications and their ability to transform lives by creating jobs, business opportunities and also the hurdles they face.

I’m Mayank Aggarwal, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India. We are an online publication dedicated to bringing you stories on science and the environment in India.

In our special podcast series, GigaWhat, we’ll explore some of the biggest questions, challenges, and opportunities in India’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

MA: Manish Kumar has visited Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Telangana, among other states, to report for Mongabay-India’s Clean Energy series. You can get the series link in the show notes. He tells us about a change underway in a remote village called Guniya in Jharkhand’s Gumla district.

MK: So, I saw a mustard processing unit in one village, then there was cold storage also run by solar energy, there was an ice cream processing unit and waste processing unit, a wheat crushing unit. So, different types of small enterprises totally run totally fueled by solar energy started coming up, and a lot of them had women as representatives.

MA: Manish also says that one or two villages in Gumla had a cluster of solar panels. The power generated from this small solar setup is sent to households and all the small businesses and industries in the vicinity.

MK: In each household, they have a meter. They have prepaid metered they pay in advance and then they operate. They recharge it with around 200 or 250 rupees per month and they use it for the whole month.

Now, Gumla does have a conventional grid connection. But it’s often unreliable.

MK: The village residents told me that there was an erratic supply of electricity. So, there was a problem in getting the electricity 24 hours. So, through this charitable organisation Melinda Foundation, they got a chance to get electricity from conventional sources of energy, plus they started having an additional source of energy from solar.

MK: So, a woman who was working in one such mustard processing unit, told me, “Initially we used to get some amount from agriculture but now because 10 women have come together to start a mustard processing unit. So, whatever extra amount of money I can get, I can now plan to invest in a good education for my children. I can send my children to nearby cities for a good education, something we could not do in our lifetime because we were totally dependent on agriculture.”

MA: With farming becoming highly unpredictable due to various reasons, many consider DRE-based jobs as an alternate source of income.

We spoke to Ananth Aravamudan from Powering Livelihoods, a programme that has enabled DRE solutions to take off in rural areas. This joint programme between policy research institute CEEW and Villgro Innovation Foundation supports multiple enterprises for the large-scale deployment of clean energy-powered appliances for livelihoods.

Ananth Aravamudan (AA): Today, when we speak about entrepreneurship, we think a lot about the startup and the startup ecosystem, which is primarily based around cities, right? But how do we create entrepreneurs at a village level? As you know, at every community level, right? For this, that entrepreneurial spirit has to be there, which is there in plenty if you look at it in our country, but also the necessary kind of infrastructure has to be there.

Some of the early studies which preceded Powering Livelihoods actually showed that the major roadblock encountered by rural entrepreneurs was lack of access to reliable electricity.

Now, I’m choosing the words very carefully because today, the grid has penetrated almost every part of the country, however, because of the vastness of the country, because of the remoteness of certain areas and communities, and of various other factors, which cause disruptions of power. Imagine a cold storage unit for fresh fruits going off or a textile power loom that stops working for several hours. Power cuts for hours or a lack of affordable electricity can be bad for any business.

I think the reliability of electricity has been an issue and decentralised renewable energy can be that one factor, which provides reliable, clean energy to rural communities to develop livelihood applications.

AA: While no doubt the grid is penetrating everywhere, typically, the focus has been on households. So, households have it, Great! Okay, but when you go to a farm, right, a much smaller percentage of the farmlands actually have power. Those who are lucky enough to have, say, pumps or pump sets will have access to power. But what if you want to set up a small processing plant right next to where you’re doing the harvest, what if you want to have a cold storage unit very close to your field, where you can store the fresh fruit or the fresh vegetables after they’re after they are plucked, right. And we know by doing this, you may be actually able to get a much better value for the produce, rather than selling it off like a distress crisis.

AA: One of the entrepreneurs in our programme, has developed a fodder growing station. Now, this uses some principles of hydroponics and it uses solar energy to power the whole thing. So basically, by setting up this unit in a household, one can generate enough fodder to feed four cattle a day. And since it’s a modular unit, you can scale it up to fit to feed as many cattle as you want, or you can sell that fodder to people who have cattle and make money on it!

Now, what we observe is that if such a unit is set up in a house, typically, it is most beneficial to the women of that household because they tend to spend more time in and around home. And therefore, a lot of women entrepreneurs who are now dealing in cattle fodder have actually been enabled and empowered by decentralised renewable energy. Just look at the alternative in earlier times the fodder collection was actually the job of the woman, they used to go out far away from the house and collect the fodder that is just for their own cattle. Whereas now, not only can they grow the fodder for their own cattle, but they can also grow, access and sell it.

MK: Funded by various foundations and the UK Government, Ananth says that Powering Livelihoods doesn’t just focus on the equipment because the problem doesn’t end there. It also creates an ecosystem that helps with finance, partnerships and better product distribution.

The programme supports a company called ‘Resham Sutra‘ that works with rural silk yarn producers and fabric weavers and provides solar-powered machines. Our next voice on this episode is Kunal Vaid, Director of Resham Sutra.

KV: We saw that the situation, the work situation for these people was extremely bad. For example, women were still making silk yarn by rolling it on their thighs, which is a very painful process and leads to lifelong disabilities. So, we started designing machines that would help them to increase their productivity, would help them to make better quality material, and also to get rid of all the problems or the physical and mental stress that they have to go through in doing their day to day work. So, we now have 12 different products that help these rural yarn producers and fabric weavers to do their work in a better way.

And then apart from this, we also offer machines for weaving. We have solar powered looms and accessories related to that there is a series of processes that the material has to go through before making the fabric so we have machines for the entire value chain. It’s almost like they’re making their own power. And then they’re using their own power to run their own machines.

Renewable energy – solar power was a need that came from the customer, it is not something that we are trying to impose from the top because we realised that regular income is a necessity for them, is a strong need.

MA: Resham Sutra started in 2016. It works across 300 villages in central, south, east, and northeast India, reaching about 16,000 people.

One of our customers was in a prison in Bilaspur. She was imprisoned for life. She wanted to work because in the prison also, you are supposed to earn your living. So somehow, one of our field partners there managed to get in touch with her. And then she picked up the job of making silk yarn, while she was in prison.

And then, over a few months and years, she became a trainer for us, she started teaching other women in the prison how to make silk yarn. And then, because of her good conduct, she was able to get out early, and she continues to work with us as a trainer. Now she travels all over the country. And then she trains other people. Our products start at about 15,000 rupees per machine including the solar power system and then at the higher end they go up to about 60 to 70,000 rupees and typically the payback period for any of our products, the way that the products are designed is that it is less than a year. So, we have tie-ups with the financing agencies also. So, most of our customers are not able to afford these products outright. So, we have EMI options available. So, for which the financing agencies come in, and they offer a loan with a pretty low kind of monthly payback payment from the customers.

MA: Like Resham Sutra, driven by the motivation to eliminate drudgery and increase income, Abhishek Pathak founded Greenwear. This social enterprise helps rural women to produce cotton and silk yarn with solar charkhas. A charkha is a traditional spinning wheel for spinning thread or yarn from fibres.

Greenwear claims that solar charkhas can produce four times more yarn than a manual new model charkha. And to ensure a market for this increased quantity of yarn, the company supplies it to weavers, and the fabric produced is also stitched into garments at Greenwear’s manufacturing unit.

Abhishek Pathak (AP): We are currently giving employment to 272 artisans full time at one facility, which we have established in Safedabad, Barabanki, and Uttar Pradesh. About 3,500 women were trained on spinning or solar charkhas in four states – UP, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat.

In India, the power looms sector constitutes more than 66% of the market share if we talk about the domestic textile market. And these power looms are mostly installed at the household base level only, and that too, in traditional textile clusters. So, that’s how we started reaching out to these weavers that if you upgrade your power looms into solar looms, or we started introducing solar looms to handloom weavers. If you start working on these, we can ensure a minimum of 300 days of work for you. So, DRE units have played a very phenomenal role in our definition or origin of Greenwear.

If you talk about the opportunities ahead or if you talk about the capacity it can hold, just imagine that if even if the 5% villages of India become solar charkha clusters, that makes around 30,000 villages. If 30,000 villages become Solar Charkha mini clusters, we can actually hold 60% of domestic textile production of India currently.

MA: There’s a market of around 53 billion US$ for DRE applications in rural areas.

A 2017 survey of DRE companies in India revealed that the sector provided direct employment to over three lakh people in both formal and informal jobs. The number of people is over double if we calculate the jobs created indirectly due to improved electricity access.

DRE has an essential role in another energy-intensive sector – agriculture.

India’s agriculture sector accounts for 22 percent of the total power consumed in India. We are increasingly turning to solar power in rural areas to decrease this burden. Solar-powered irrigation pumps have replaced conventional, expensive, polluting pumps that run on diesel or grid-connected electricity.

Manish says that the sight of rows of glass panels in the middle of fields is getting more frequent during his trips, but he still hasn’t got used to it.

From his interaction with farmers, he says that while solar pumps have helped save on diesel and kerosene expenses, financial assistance and subsidies have been significant drivers for the switch.

As of now, the national and state governments have their eyes locked on mega solar, wind and hydro projects. Startups and civil society are playing a significant role in taking DRE applications to India’s hinterlands.

India will require an annual DRE investment of $18 billion by 2024 to meet its sustainable energy targets. A 10 times increase from current levels.

Kunal from Resham Sutra, Abhishek from Greenwear and Ananth from Powering Livelihoods all echo similar thoughts on areas that need more work and government support.

First – spreading awareness and building trust among people about the products.

AA: I see several more of the progressive states who are looking at decentralised renewable energy, doing a lot of promotions around how these solutions can actually be deployed, what are the costs, what are the schemes etc, etc. So many states today, through the rural livelihood missions, are promoting decentralised renewable energy based livelihoods, and I think this trend should definitely continue.

Second – providing more access to finance to purchase DRE equipment.

AA: So, as the state run or the nationalised banks step into the picture and start providing loans against which these DRE equipment can be purchased, we’ll see a huge spike in their usage. And I think this is something that the government can definitely do through the various schemes which they bring about.

And third – creating a market and distribution network for the products that are produced.

AA: When you have all this fresh produce, new, improved products coming out from villages which was not the case earlier and which have been enabled by decentralised renewable energy, it is very important that corporations now start encouraging these things, right? And just think of the beautiful story behind it, right, when an organic chain wants to now start selling products, which are actually produced by solar energy, right, it’s not just that it’s organic, but it’s also produced completely by clean energy.

So, this kind of market linkage where some of these products are of high quality and with a very clean track record; if they can be taken and sold in urban areas and that some of that premium be passed on to the producers. This will be a huge catalyst for the spread of DRE based livelihoods.

Kunal sees a space for product innovation too.

KV: The availability of good, well designed products and solutions for the villages, which are specifically designed for their needs. We have seen some changes, we are seeing more and more things coming in. But then much more is needed.

Our reports for the Clean Energy series revealed a common issue plaguing decentralised solar projects. For instance, in the Sundarbans, Mongabay-India contributor Snighdhenhu Bhattacharya reported that off-grid solar plants that once powered islands, its local shops and offices now lie defunct, standing like relics of the past. Manish Kumar wrote about a solar power station in Bihar’s ‘first solar village’ that became a makeshift cattle shed. What led to the failure of these once-ambitious projects?

MK: Whatever I have seen in different areas when these solar assets are not well maintained, or well kept not taken care of by people when the local communities are not taken into confidence when their participation is not insured. So, many of such projects have failed on the ground despite much talk about how much energy they can save and how beneficial it could be.

So, experts tell us that solar panels have a shelf life of around 15 years.  I have seen that many projects in different parts of India have failed within three years or five years because there is no maintenance from the governments or the agencies who were deployed to install such projects. So in Gumla, there was a man deployed full time for protection, there was maintenance and the local communities were taken into confidence.

In early 2022, the Indian government released a framework for promoting DRE livelihood applications. It states that these applications should be integrated into the different government schemes run by the ministries to create sustainable jobs.

AA: A lot of focus is today being put on larger scale power plants and how they can contribute to India’s clean energy ambitions, and also our commitments, in terms of preventing global warming and so on. However, I think very less attention is actually being paid to the needs of rural communities and how energy can be a major catalyst in stepping up the opportunities to create livelihoods in rural areas.

Please share this episode with your friends and family and on social media.

This show was produced and scripted by my colleague Kartik Chandramouli, Edited and mixed by Tejas Dayananda Sagar, Copy edits by Priyanka Shankar. We got production assistance from Ayushi Kothari. The GigaWhat artwork is done by Pooja Gupta.

We’ll be out with another episode of GigaWhat soon. Take care.

Listen more:

Banner image: Members of the self-help group at Guniya, a village in Jharkhand, walk close to the decentralised solar energy setup which is used to power several small-scale businesses. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

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