Solar Microgrid – A bright idea to light up rural India

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By the end of April 2018, India had managed to bring the last of its villages under the national grid for electrification. What started three years ago in August 2015, saw nearly 6 lakh census villages in the country become part of an intricate network of power girds connecting the country. This was also the culmination of the INR 76,000 crore Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY), which promised to energize every village in the country and facilitated the creation of basic electricity infrastructure. A village is considered electrified if 10% of its households gets access to power, which includes public and social amenities like panchayat office, health centres, dispensaries etc. Further, to intensify the electrification coverage and to ensure the last mile connectivity, the Government also launched the Saubhagya scheme in September 2017 to achieve 24×7 power for all by providing electricity connection to each household.

With nearly two thirds of the country living in rural parts, the challenge of universal access to electricity in India has remained a pipedream for long.  With energy poverty being one of the key reasons for overall economic poverty, access to energy has over the last become a global agenda.  Infact, ‘ensuring access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030’ is also one of the key Sustainable Development Goals-SDG 7 set by the United Nations.

Nationally implemented programmes like DDUGJY and Saubhagya have managed to make progress towards universal electrification, but the quality and reliability of power supply are still a challenge, especially in rural areas. The mammoth network of grids that connect the country has served us well and to a large extent continue to do so but they come with their limitations. Massive capital cost, long gestation period (to turn profitable), endemic AT&C losses etc. have been some of the biggest challenges faced in achieving universal electrification. Conventional solutions also meant that an increasing reliance on fossil fuel-based generating plants that are becoming increasingly difficult to justify due to their environmental cost. 

Over the last few years, two important progresses have been made that gives greater hope for India’s massive electrification challenge, particularly in rural parts that continue to dominate the country’s landscape. First, a strong policy push towards renewable energy (including large projects connected to grids) has helped in reducing the unit cost green energy and in many instances on par or below conventional energy.  Two, microgrids have started to make in-roads into parts of the country that have remained inaccessible to conventional grids. Solar micro-grid, a combined outcome of these two developments promises to solve the challenge of rural electrification once and for all.  

Solar micro-grid is essentially an array of photovoltaic (PV) cells that generates power and transmits to a central controller -Power Conditioning Unit (PCU) which then transmits electricity directly to homes, shops, street lights, commercial & industrial users, etc. offering an excellent solution. With the addition of the evolving battery storage technology, power consumers in rural parts can continue to have access to electricity even after sunset. A micro-grid is also much cheaper and quicker to deploy and can range from as small as 30 kW to a 1 MW system.

The technologically more advanced solar microgrid also provides hope to reduce dependency on off-grid sources diesel, which today powers more than 40% of rural enterprises, especially the commercial & industrial users, in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Lowering the dependence on diesel also saves cost and the environment. Microgrids on account of advancements in energy management solutions, remote monitoring, smart meters, etc. are using some state-of-the-art solutions for control and monitoring purposes.

As India’s leading integrated utility and a leader in renewable energy Tata Power through TP Renewable Microgrid in collaboration with The Rockefeller Foundation plans to set up 10,000 microgrids over the next six years to provide power to millions across India and help eradicate energy poverty. When this plan is fully executed it will power 5 million households with electricity and positively impact 25 million lives. Further, easy access to power is also expected to create 10,000 new green jobs and support 100,000 rural enterprises and deliver irrigation to 400,000 local farmers while supplying potable water to their communities. The positive environmental outcome is also immense. The 10,000 microgrids when fully implemented will cut yearly carbon dioxide emissions by 1 million tonnes and save 57 million liters of diesel annually. The initial successes of microgrid projects witnessed in parts of Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, offers great hope to replicate them across the country. The combined effort and resources of all key stakeholders including utilities, technology leaders, government and experts in implementing socio-economic projects is proving to be the solution India has been waiting for.

The author is the CEO & Managing Director, Tata Power

Mr. Praveer Sinha, CEO & MD, Tata Power Ltd.

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