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A while back I wrote a post on the need to get India's solar boom right. I wrote it because it was obvious that solar energy was primed to take off in India and it was clear there were two paths the country could take – distribute that boom to benefit the 300 million people still waiting for the grid, or forcibly centralize a resource that is most effective when distributed. Now a year later installations have grown at a blistering pace - from 80 MW a year ago to over 1 GW but they are almost entirely centralized. As Indian states line up exciting new solar policies the central question remains: To centralize or not to centralize?

Let's start with hard reality: The grid is never coming to rural India. No matter what 'very serious policy makers' want to believe, decades of attempts and huge gains in supply have yielded little increase in electrification. More importantly, off grid solar installations have been dramatically cheaper than grid extension for a while because they compete with the huge costs of extending the grid and the huge costs of diesel and heavily polluting kerosene. That's why the future of rural electrification is decentralized clean energy something even the very serious IEA recognizes.

But it's not just the IEA that gets this; politicians are catching on as well. Take Nitish Kumar the chief minister of Bihar whose sole political platform is delivering energy access to the 100 million people of Bihar. To achieve this lofty goal (only 18% of the population currently has access) Bihar’s going to need a distributed clean energy revolution because coal-gate has deepened the already immense problems of the coal sector making the possibility of a coal fired future impossible. If Kumar wants to remain in office, he has to rely on distributed solar.

And, of course, distributed grid tied installations reduce peak load which can help avoid blackouts. You know, like the historic one India just suffered. In short, distributed is the way to go.

But despite the clear benefits of distributed solar a wave of recently announced solar policies have failed to internalize its importance. From Uttar Pradesh (UP) where 1 GW of solar is planned for 2017, to Andhra Pradesh where a slew of tax benefits and reduced charges will help meet its Renewable Purchase Obligation to Tamil Nadu where a whopping 3 GW are planned by 2015 it's not at all clear that distributed installations will dominate deployment (except perhaps in Tamil Nadu).

Instead they may go the way of Gujarat where the solar boom really began and large scale, grid tied solar farms are the norm. Many have cheered this on because 'big projects' drive 'scale.' But do they?

The US finally got around to totaling our solar installations and we were surprised at what we found. All those small scale distributed installations financed by third parties like Sungevity have added up to something really big – 2.5 GW which represents about 70% of all US installations. So here's a lesson for all those who love scale: Small is big.

Despite the 'Gujarat effect', there are signs that India is beginning to recognize the importance of distributing all that solar. The Union ministry recently announced a new program that will subsidize rooftop solar installations by 30%. And even centralization happy Gujarat has a rooftop policy in the works. Add to these positive steps the potential forthird party finance from institutions like the IFC and India could have a distributed solar revolution on its hands that would deliver social benefits that would cascade throughout society.

But India will only get one chance to get its boom right. Squandering an opportunity to build a robust grid that avoids blackouts while lifting 300 million people out of energy poverty is simply not an option. As the National Solar mission enters its second phase the country has the opportunity to drive financing and boost deployment of distributed solar. Now is the time to steer this ship away from its centralized mooring towards a distributed clean energy revolution. Because how solar is deployed, is just as important to India as whether its deployed at all.

Originally posted to Jguay on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 06:14 AM PST.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Notes to Diarist: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wino, koNko, John Crapper

    I tipped and recced, and scheduled to be published on "Climate Change SOS"  on Thursday. Right now everybody here's too busy with the elections, with Hurricane Sandy recovery at second place.

    Meanwhile, I suggest you add a little more detail to the diary. I am into solar energy, but I am still not familiar with the situation in India - except that the potential there is huge, and that the tech and capital situation there is much better than a decade ago.

    But can you tell us more about the two differing paths, and what can be done to make sure India takes the distributed one in its vast rural areas?

    Maybe in a follow-up diary to this one.

    •  Is there any way to fund specific projects? (0+ / 0-)
      The Union ministry recently announced a new program that will subsidize rooftop solar installations by 30%.
      A 30% subsidy will allow some people to take advantage of this who otherwise could not, but there will still be people who do not have those resources.  How can we find them and give them matching funds or other support?

      -7.75 -4.67

      "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

      There are no Christians in foxholes.

      by Odysseus on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 07:43:23 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Funding projects (0+ / 0-)

        Odysseus great question. Check out or both crowd source funding in small amounts from individual donors to support these efforts. Time to put our money where our mouth is!

  •  Solar is the way out for domestic (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wino, Roadbed Guy

    Power - lighting and cooking etc

    Unfortunately some local home owners ass disapprove of rooftop panels and wont allow it, even in sun rich Tx

    Also folks waste a lot of water, greening the grass lawns instead of planting veggies

  •  Since the Technology is Evolving So Fast, the Risk (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wino, Odysseus, John Crapper

    of early centralization may not be as great as with other technologies.

    There's a new all-carbon cell being developed for example, and with various other developments, small scale solar is going to get much cheaper even if some big centralized solar is put in place.

    Another strong argument btw for distributed & rooftop solar is natural disasters such as quakes and storms. Grid trouble will be a lot less disruptive with more distributed generation.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 06:29:20 AM PST

  •  My dream house. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wino, Odysseus, John Crapper

    Small, built with maximum energy efficiency. Rammed earth. With passive solar features, and if possible, bermed.  A metal roof covered with solar film. A windmill.  Rainwater collection tanks. Propane gas or wood pellet stove for heating backup if necessary.  

    We have the technology, and it gets cheaper and better every day. We can do this. I hope India can too.

    Freedom has two enemies: Those who want to control everyone around them...and those who feel no need to control themselves.

    by Sirenus on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 06:37:02 AM PST

  •  What if people want electricity at night? n/t (0+ / 0-)

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 06:41:16 AM PST

    •  It's usually windy at night (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rich in PA

      so they could get themselves a wind turbine, I suppose.

      •  These folks are going to have lots of gadgets... (0+ / 0-)

        ...for very poor rural people.

        You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

        by Rich in PA on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 09:23:07 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's the beauty of it (0+ / 0-)

          once they have all these gadgets, they won't be so poor any more.

          I suppose, to play the devil's advocate, one might wonder how they'll be able to afford all these gadgets in the first place, what with being very poor and all.

          But that's the magic of the free market - it will all just work out!   Just like Bill Gates' market-based schemes to end poverty in Africa . .. ..

    •  There's this snazzy new invention (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      John Crapper, Calamity Jean

      called the battery.

      Really, Rich, what kind of comment is that?  There are plenty of issues (and costs) associated with energy storage, but you act like it doesn't even exist.

      I am become Man, the destroyer of worlds

      by tle on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 07:00:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'll tell you what kind of comment it is (0+ / 0-)

        It's a comment from someone who doesn't want rural people in India or anywhere else to be stuck with just enough energy to power a light bulb and radio at low volume.  The idea that India is incapable to extending the grid and that decentralized solar energy is therefore the solution flies in the face of the extension of the grid not only in southern India but even in Gujarat.  Where there's good state governance, the grid is pretty extensive and now we're seeing that in Bihar, albeit from a low level because it had very bad governance.  The idea of experimenting with a new and up-front-capital-intensive technology on very poor people is a little off-putting to me.  

        You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

        by Rich in PA on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 09:22:16 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Then you should have said that in the first place. (0+ / 0-)

          Instead of throwing out that first comment. I don't agree with you, but at least there's a basis for discussion in your second comment.

          I am become Man, the destroyer of worlds

          by tle on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 09:55:02 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  off putting (0+ / 0-)

          You mean like we did with rural co-ops in the USA in the 30's? If we played it safe and waited for the grid it will never come. That's far more off-putting if you are live today with no power at all.

    •  All installations have batteries (0+ / 0-)
  •  Not sure if 80 MW in one year is (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    a "blistering pace" - but better than nothing!

    In any event, I don't thing the dichotomy you set up - centralized vs. distributed - is very useful.  Why not both?

    •  blistering (0+ / 0-)

      It is when you consider the previous pace - 0%!

      As for the dichotomy, its an opportunity cost issue. If we don't focus our efforts we squander precious capital. But it's also true here in the US. We either go for a distributed, robust grid, or we centralize everything. It's an opportunity cost issue we can't have it both ways. Check out Lovins new book reinventing fire for some great work on the issue.

  •  One hears that the telephone "grid" will never (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    John Crapper, Calamity Jean

    reach third-world rural areas because cell towers are getting there first. I do hope that electric power goes the same route.

    There are also interesting development in the area of village-scale "microgrids" employing solar panels, 24v DC LED lighting, and cheap aluminum wiring.

    Have you noticed?
    Politicians who promise LESS government
    only deliver BAD government.

    by jjohnjj on Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 07:58:21 AM PST

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