What to Make of this Curious Headline from India: Solar Microgrid Not ‘Real’ Electricity?

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India's Curious Microgrid Headline

Credit: Manoj nav

I was struck this week by a curious headline about a new solar microgrid in India, ‘Bihar village rejects solar-powered microgrid and demands ‘real’ electricity.’

The India Today article tells the story of Dharnai, “a non-descript village tucked away in the Naxal heartland of Bihar.” The village recently gained electricity for the first time in 33 years thanks to a 100-kW solar microgrid brought by Greenpeace India.

But apparently not all of the villagers are happy with the microgrid.

“Village youngsters” greeted a visiting dignitary with placards that said: “We do not want artificial energy, give us the real one,” said the article.

It is not clear from the article why the protesters considered the solar microgrid artificial energy; nor is it clear how they define real energy. But the article implied that they wanted their village to be connected to the main grid, as it had been more than 30 years earlier before a transformer burned and cables were carted away.

Clearly, the protesters view microgrids very differently than do Americans. Here a microgrid is a premium product, likely to be employed by research universities, data centers and others seeking high quality, reliable power.  These microgrids are very much  ‘real’ electricity in that they reduce the threat of outages.  “I see ourselves as at risk anytime we are on the grid because we are more reliable than them,” said Juan Ontiveros, who runs the microgrid at the University of Texas at Austin, when he was recently interviewed by EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com His statement encapsulated the growing appreciation of microgrids in the United States, especially since Superstorm Sandy.

But in Dharnai, the  microgrid is viewed as a lesser product. Why?

When I tweeted my bewilderment about the Dharnai headline, I received a link to an interesting analysis that may shed some light. In Making Energy Access Meaningful, authors Morgan Bazlian and Roger Pielke argue that our efforts to electrify energy poor regions are too meager to make an economic dent. They wrote:

“…achiev­ing minimal levels of energy access is not to be confused with success in achieving goals of modern energy ac­cess. The sorts of policies that would make sense to get large numbers of people over a low and arbitrary thresh­old are very different from those that will underpin sus­tained growth in economies and consumption. Consider that we do not label people who live on more than $1 per day as having “economic access” and address policies toward achieving a $1.25 level, thus still leaving them desperately poor. Everyone understands that $1.25 a day is still not nearly enough. In energy, we often lack such conceptual clarity…”

Is that what Dharnai’s protesters mean when they call for real energy? Are they arguing that the solar microgrid, while nice, won’t really change their economic prospects?

For its part, Greenpeace India has a lot of good things to say about Dharnai’s solar microgrid. It certainly sounds game changing – the microgrid, which includes battery storage for 24/7  power, will light up 50 shops, a bank, a school, a health facility, a training center,  several agricultural water pumps, 60 street lights, and 450 households reaching 2,200 people.

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Greenpeace volunteer Avik Roy tells a story in a blog about  Suresh Manjhi, who will no longer have to travel more than three miles from Dharnai  just to charge his cell phone or pay for expensive kerosene to see at night. Roy also quoted Dharnai resident Ranti Devi as saying, “We had a lot of problems in the past, but since the lights have been installed in our homes, it has become easier for us to cook and for our children to study. We can walk around in the streets at night without any fear.”

So what is the real story? Does the Dharnai microgrid represent a way out of poverty or false hope? I ask sincerely; I do not know and very much look forward to your comments on what microgrids mean to poor rural communities. Please speak up, especially our readers from northern India, as well as American microgrid developers who do business there.  Your insight is needed.

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. Donney Dorton says:

    Great societies and their economies have come and gone on the face of the earth for thousands of years. All of them (including the USA) built and forged with not even a flicker of electricity. Economic strength was not made possible by electricity, quite the opposite, economic strength allowed the creation of electricity. So if electricity did not create economics strength, why would putting in a touch of electricity suddenly transform a city economically? It is a false hope to assume that providing some electricity will transform a way of life. They had electricity 30 years ago and the transformer blew, why was the transformer not replaced? Would it be because the city had no economy and could not afford to replace even a transformer. And finally, notice they did not say we want to buy electricity, they said “give” us electricity. I don’t get free electricity, do you?

  2. Larry Goldberg says:

    Perhaps the misperception is due to how the project was sold to the village. If instead of Greenpeace, an energy company had built it and called it a “power plant,” and financed it with an interest free loan to the village repaid by usage, the perception might be different even if the plant was identically equipped with solar, storage, and microgrid systems, and identically paid for by Greenpeace. Additionally, it could have been promoted as a modular first step towards full electrification.

    The misperception is reinforced by the former Chief, who according the India Today article “eventually promised the villagers that ‘real electricity’ would be provided to them shortly.”

  3. K V Govinda says:

    As you see in the article – the village has been devoid of electricity since 1981. The villagers are very skeptical because they have been fooled for the past 33 years by the corrupt political leaders about making investments for its development.

    I believe this public perception is because of two primary reasons – (i) the people are not aware of the numerous benefits of microgrids, and (ii) they are afraid that it is just one of those dubious schemes by the corrupt politicians to get their votes in the next elections.

  4. There angry and protest is about the way they have been kept away from getting electrical power in a Democratic country for this much long years. Their angry is very much meaningful,when politicians are talking about connecting cities with bullet train.
    However, the village should understand that they have liberated from political system from which they have not received a fair share of basic amenities.

  5. At face value this looks more like local politics than anything else. I don’t think too much importance should be attached to a few signs brandished by “village youngsters” that coincided with the visit of a regional politician.
    True indicators that there’s something meaningful here would be:
    * electrical supply connections being refused by villagers
    * sabotage of electrical supply infrastructure and the village response to it
    * more concerted protests delivered to the regional capital
    Otherwise “nothing to see here”, so move on.

  6. I think this is just political. At ground zero, people will not appreciate but benefit a lot. As your blog says, local residents welcome them. But the politicians do so to get more mileage and maintain their stronghold.
    I have earlier heard/read similar things for hydel plant and its electricity or released water rendered useless for cultivation!!

  7. In early seventy ,from where i belong PUNJAB ,INDIA one political party makes false allegation and illiterate farmer came in there influence that water they are getting is not real water because electricity has been withdrawn fro this water.they are saying that hydro project suck electricity from the water and this water is like milk without fat…….illiteracy
    so my point is that you should have full knowledge or try to get knowledge from reliable source. microgrid have also same electricity as generated by other source.

  8. Agnostic Bystander says:

    Dear Elisa,

    To an outside observer this is a baffling yet interesting development. However, on the outset it could be suggested that since the incident being discussed happened in India, a political angle to the protest should not be ruled out, a jaded conclusion albeit a very realistic possibility.

    Provision of such a microgrid that will obviously alleviate a whole lot of problems; will also take away with it a reason to motivate the population against any existing political establishment.

    The provision of “Bijli aur Pani” (power and water) has been a long standing promise in the Indian rural elections that has won elections for generations of politicians. Anger over unavailability of basic utilities like these have been used to rally the masses during election season, so much so that there are local jokes and TV commercials using the phenomenon as a platform to advertise their goods and services. Although it no laughing matter for people that practically suffer through the inhuman conditions.

    Unfortunately, the rural masses only always find themselves at the receiving end of undelivered election time promises. If these same politicians, now find themselves with having to promise something over and above; its a conundrum they have not imagined before and wouldn’t know how to start. Now that the village in question has electricity and thus consequently water, what can possibly be promised next that will make the simple village folks vote for them?

    Consider for example the line (“Village youngsters” greeted a visiting dignitary with placards that said: “We do not want artificial energy, give us the real one,” said the article.) . Impressionable youngsters without tangible vocation or real opportunities are easily drawn to the power in local politics, this combined with the probability that the “visiting dignitary” was a local politician trying to lap up credit; the “protest” comes as no surprise.

    An attempt to logically assess the public outrage, as a sign of inadequacy of the solution itself, may lead to incorrect conclusions in this context.

    That said the rural masses, which are largely unaware about either solar energy or about microgrids and their benefits, need only see the positive impact with patience and over time will begin to appreciate the only practical long term solution to their electricity problem. As they eventually find out, that the “electricity is the same”, the villagers will realize the futility of their intentionally misguided hostility. This of course is assuming that they are not being forced to switch to use of DC only.

    24/7 power availability along with supply to important institutions like school, banks and training centers, only bodes well for progress that has sometimes been intentionally stalled and a jump start that is long overdue. Awareness; that the solution by its very design, lends its ability to grow in parallel to the growth of the village needs, will dawn on the general population leading to broad acceptance and shifting focus to more progressive activities.

    Of course these are just observations on the outset, but the remarks are based on generally accumulated wisdom and typical scenes experienced on project initiation.

  9. I think this teaches all of us working in developing countries that awareness campaigns are as important as the actual projects we undertake. Many of these villagers may not know how to read or write. So very few will be aware of basic physics concepts. This energy illiteracy might be easily warped by those wishing to create political mischief.
    This is one of the reasons that we face a lot of power theft in South Asia. It is often hard for people to realize that electricity is a quantity that cost money to create. They think of it as something intangible, like air or a radiowave, that just exists. And so they cannot imagine that they are really stealing anything.
    One can’t really blame the villagers in this article, when even the educated masses in our countries do not realize that electricity is just a fuel. We do not need electricity. We need services like light, cooling, heating, entertainment, transport, etc. We can get those same services using different sources of energy, or in an energy efficient or energy inefficient way.
    http://www.energyefficiencydatabase.com

  10. It may well be political, in the sense of expectation setting. But I wonder if these youngsters aren’t disappointed with the limited power the solar microgrid provides – enough perhaps for a few lights, an electric fan, a cell phone charger and a radio or TV? They may have expected the ability to power video games or a DVD player, etc. with 24/7 grid power with fewer limitations.

  11. Agnostic Bystander says:

    @Dick,
    It does say the following
    …the microgrid, which includes battery storage for 24/7 power, will light up 50 shops, a bank, a school, a health facility, a training center, several agricultural water pumps, 60 street lights, and 450 households reaching 2,200 people. Suresh Manjhi, who will no longer have to travel more than three miles from Dharnai just to charge his cell phone or pay for expensive kerosene to see at night. Roy also quoted Dharnai resident Ranti Devi as saying, “We had a lot of problems in the past, but since the lights have been installed in our homes, it has become easier for us to cook and for our children to study. We can walk around in the streets at night without any fear.”…so its a lot more than just a few lights…also its definitely a lot more than what they have now…and as their needs grow so can the solution.

  12. @Agnostic : And do you have any idea how many inhabitants there’s in that village ? What proves that this microgrid won’t be constantly going down because actually this amount of power is far from being sufficient for the actual needs ? Maybe frequently some villager will plug a power hungry appliance, and put down the supply for everyone.

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