While considering the successes of independent India, the absence of 100 per cent electrification must rank among the nation’s prominent failures.
Despite the “inclusive” growth rhetoric, economic value remains locked and individual empowerment stunted. An Aakash tablet does little good if a villager cannot charge its batteries. Internet access as a tool then remains a pipedream. This cruelty is exacerbated when electricity plants idle for lack of fuel because coal blocks are treated as rent seeking opportunities.
PASSAGE OF SCINDIA
In this disheartening scenario, a window of opportunity has opened up, thanks to two developments. One, the appointment of Jyotiraditya Scindia as Minister of Power, and, two, the potential of distributed solar electricity generation — “off-grid” — to reduce stress on the grid.
Minister Scindia has about one year to make a historic contribution. If he should view his position as “business as usual,” he might get bogged down with fuel linkages for power plants, grid reliability, bailout of electricity boards, and the like. In a recent interview, Scindia said, “I will try to ensure coordination with Coal and Environment Ministries” and “make sure that the remote areas of the country get power supply. I will try to ensure growth in the sector.” Nothing wrong, yet, in so doing, he will buttress the fossil-fuel paradigm which is in long-term decline. He will lose the historic leadership prospects of the moment.
By virtue of his birth, education at Harvard and Stanford, and work at Morgan Stanley, the Minister has, prima facie, credibility for leadership in the complex and technology-intensive energy sector. By appointing Nobel physicist Steven Chu as energy secretary, US President Barack Obama has set the bar high for conversations on all matters energy, which is only fitting for an issue central to global warming, climate change, and energy independence.
MAKING A MARK
How might Scindia contribute to India’s energy future amidst the solar photovoltaic revolution?
Recognise the business: The Ministry of Power is, in fact, in the “Sustainable Energy provision and management” business, rural and urban, whatever the fuel or generation technologies. Its scope encompasses renewable energy, emissions-free air, and global warming. Historically, its role has been confined to generation and transmission based on fuel-types, e.g., coal, nuclear, or hydro power. Given the new energy and environmental realities, the traditional mission needs to change.
In fact, the distinction between the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), led by Farooq Abdullah, and the Ministry of Power is a matter of focus; they are, in fact, in the same business requiring seamless inter-working between them. Such cooperation does occur.
For instance, when the reverse auctions for new solar generation capacity took place in December 2011 as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), the bidders treated their solar plants, under the MNRE umbrella, as equivalent to fossil-fuel based plants — centralised and grid-tied under the Ministry of Power.
Offset 5 per cent of peak load using distributed solar: Millions of solar installations should be deployed on millions of rooftops of residential and retail premises, government offices, schools, colleges, and factories across the nation. The goal must be to bring down, say, in three years, the peak shortages of 13 per cent by about 5 per cent amounting to 10 GW.
The number is ten times more than the off-grid generation target of 1 GW by 2017 in the JNNSM. It appears doable; 10 million homes nationwide with 1 kW system each. Why was the target set low? In any case, it should increase, given dramatically dropping photovoltaic prices. People will buy the systems when they see the savings, reliability, and evidence that rooftop solar will bring an end to power cuts.
Farooq Abdullah and Scindia could visit China and Taiwan, buy their excess and inexpensive solar panels, and encourage them to build plants in India. Germany’s leadership in distributed solar is instructive too. Massive deployment in India should permit economies of scale and drive out costs. Many households already have inverters as back-up for grid failures that should be charged by solar.
Partner with the Ministry of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME): Awareness-building and new skills in the areas of installation and maintenance of solar panels are essential. For the former, MSME may partner with the NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners), who certify photovoltaic installers. That training may be adapted to Indian conditions.
Scale, Scope, Reach: Engagement with the States, through a national conference, may be needed to launch such an initiative. The Power and Renewable Energy ministries may enlist State ministers, leaders of electricity boards, and private enterprises who may be implementers of distributed energy systems.
Done well, the initiatives should survive leadership and government changes. They will lead to entrepreneurial start-ups, employment generation, rural electrification, environmental benefits, urban and industrial load reduction, and thereby reduce vexatious power cuts.
We expect a lot from Scindia. In President Kennedy’s words modified from the Bible, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” He appears motivated by public service and bears a sense of noblesse oblige. Nationwide distributed solar is a worthy cause for him.
Royalty has its privileges, certainly for the royal personages, and also for the aam aadmi; with family wealth and prestige, the Minister is freer to act primarily in the public interest.
(The author is a visiting professor, strategy, at IIM Kozhikode. The views are personal.)