Solar micro grids: A reality check

Solar is a buzz word today. There's a lot of hope and expectation on solar micro-grids as reliable mechanisms to delivery electricity to rural and remote areas. (In brief, solar micro grids are moderate sized solar panels (larger than small roof top panels) set up in a village. All households in the village are  connected to it.) We may need to exercise caution about utility of solar micro grids. It's not as straight forward as it seems.

Anant Sudarshan of EPIC India, University of Chicago has an article in I4I on the experience of solar micro-grids in Bihar. The article outlines the challenges as tracked by their study. Broadly, the challenges are

1. Low take up: Only 20% of the villages who were offered micro grids agreed to take up, even after subsidizing the price by half. The capital costs of setting up the grid are separate which are also taken care of by the provider.

There can be multiple reasons for it.
  • Expectation of grid electricity: People expect to receive grid electricity soon. Hence, they don't want to commit to solar.
  • Insufficient power: Currently, these villages don't get any power. Micro grids can only supply enough power to power a bulb and fan. This isn't enough for people to shift to solar. They want to shift only if the power is sufficient to run TVs, electric motor etc.
2. Lax payments: Lax payment can be due to two reasons.

  • Weak enforcement: Electricity payments is a huge issue in India, even with government discoms. It's not surprising that the same is seen in this case, given the fact that there's no enforcement mechanism.
  • Dissatisfaction with service: Lax payment is often attributed only to weak enforcement or attitudes of people that makes them feel electricity as an entitlement. One must note that, sometimes, people are unwilling to pay because of the poor quality of service.

3. Theft: People steal electricity. Enforcement systems are weak in India even for government backed discoms. Leave alone solar micro grids.

4. Use of high power appliances: The solar grid stores energy in battery which is supplied to the village. If someone sucks up all energy, then the rest households suffer. Often, people charge car batteries. If the current is reduced so as to prevent it, it affects the lighting and fans in house, leading to dissatisfied consumers.

5. Kerosene subsidy: People give the subsidized kerosene to generate owners in exchange for cheap power.

The article suggests removal of kerosene subsidy, use of smart meters to detect theft as solutions. However, I am not optimistic since each of those recommendations have their own problems. Also, there are some other problems with micro grids that aren't mentioned in the article.

Maintenance is costly - Solar grids are expensive to maintain. Add the lack of trained technicians locally to it, the situation is worse. Panels get destroyed during winds and cyclones, due to monkeys and various other reasons. Sending a technician from either a district head quarter or from a capital city is expensive. It is difficult to retrieve that amount from people.

Smart meters aren't feasible for two reasons
  • They are expensive. Each smart meter costs anywhere between 3k-5k. It may not make business sense to install such meters in households who hardly consume Rs.100 per month.
  • Smart meters aren't theft proof: The expectation is that if one tampers with the meter, it can be detected. However, if someone by-passes the meter - connect the wire emerging from pole directly to appliances - removing the meter in between - one can't do anything.

One might think of peer pressure as solution. If people don't pay bill, electricity to whole village can be stopped by deactivating the grid. This can result in peer pressure to pay bills. However, it needn't work out. Caste dynamics is one the reasons. People don't want to pickup fights with those of  other castes. They are willing to live without electricity, instead of fighting.

Does that mean micro grids useless? What's the solution?

With the current costs and capacity of micro grids (which can only power bulb and refrigerator), it is difficult to satisfy the needs of consumers, who have high expectations.

One, government should try and connect as many villages as possible to the main grid.

Two, cover under grid consumers. Often, we think that lack of electricity is due to lack of presence of transformer nearby. As this study shows, it is a possibility that many households are within the catchment area of transformers but aren't still connected . They are called under grid consumers. They are low-hanging fruit. Such under grid consumers are to be covered.

Three, reserve micro grids only for remotest areas where costs of installation far exceed the benefits, typically to hamlets of 20-30 houses.  Here again, it is important to do three things.
  • Set expectations straight during the installation itself - the connection is only for running a light and bulb.
  • Heavily subsidize
  • Have a good operation and maintenance network
Chattisgarh is one of the places where micro grids have sustained longer. It employs all the above strategies. Expectations are set during the installation itself - households are clearly told that this is only for a bulb and fan. Households pay only Rs.30 per month flat charge. The maintenance of grids is outsourced to a private company who has locally trained technicians. The maintenance costs are borne by the government.

In summary, micro grids can only be a back up option when the options for grid connection exhaust. It isn't a first-best option to power rural households, with the current level of technological development.

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