Jobs outside the grid

Deepali Khanna/ Kristina Skierka Updated on June 23, 2021

Decentralised renewables sector is a job multiplier

The lockdown in India led to hundreds of thousands of workers in cities returning to their hometowns. With most jobs concentrated in urban regions, their exodus highlighted the precarious employment situation for millions in rural India.

Even before the pandemic, jobs were a challenge. In 2019, the unemployment rate in India was the highest in 47 years. While jobless growth remains the norm in many sectors, labour-intensive green technologies can help us overcome this challenge. One such technology is decentralised renewable energy (DRE), that is, energy produced outside the main grid through mini-grids, solar pumps, solar home systems, etc.

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Although the decentralised solar industry is relatively nascent compared to large-scale grid-connected solar projects, it employs as many people. According to Power for All’s Powering Jobs Census 2019, it provided 95,000 formal direct and 200,000 informal jobs in 2017-18. By 2022-23, formal jobs in the sector are expected to double, though the pandemic might alter these projections. Regardless, the prospect for job growth is immense. If 40 per cent of India’s energy were to come from renewables by 2030, it could generate an additional three million jobs. This would more than offset the 259,000 jobs lost in the transition away from fossil fuels.

Solar power

However, all renewables are not equal — decentralised solar has the greatest impact on jobs. For every MW of installed capacity, rooftop solar creates 24.7 jobs while large-scale solar and wind plants generate 3.45 and 1.27 jobs respectively.

Another advantage of DRE over large-scale renewables is that its biggest beneficiaries have been poor and marginalised communities. Its decentralised nature creates employment in remote regions, where opportunities are more likely to be scarce.

In 2017-18, the availability of reliable energy through DRE led to the creation of 470,000 jobs. For many businesses, it has led to a significant rise in productivity. These gains could especially benefit the agricultural sector.

Also, about 60 per cent of the informal workforce in the DRE sector is female, often employed as sales agents. Those in the 15-24 age group comprise almost half the project development and installation workforce and hold 68 per cent of the manufacturing and supply chain jobs.

While decentralized renewables can be powerful job engines, their role in countering climate change is no less significant. For instance, replacing five million diesel pumps with decentralised solar systems could save as much as 10 billion litres of diesel and 26 mt of CO2 emissions.

To reap these benefits, the hurdles to scaling up DRE jobs must be overcome. The sector faces a major skills gap, especially management skills, which are crucial for the growth of the sector. There’s a need to increase the number and quality of training programmes. These must provide a hands-on experience rather than just theoretical knowledge.

DRE education is currently limited to a few colleges that are concentrated in or around cities. Training must be expanded to the district, block and panchayat level, especially since rural communities stand to benefit the most from DRE applications.

Government use of DRE applications can make a remarkable difference. For example, electrification through DRE of the almost 40,000 un-electrified health sub-centres will not only create jobs, but also be cheaper in the long run and less polluting by doing away with diesel generators.

The government can also consider incorporating DRE jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

With the second Covid-19 wave, the employment crisis is likely to exacerbate. It’s time to start thinking outside the grid.

Deepali is Managing Director, Asia Regional Office, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Kristina is CEO, Power for All

Published on June 23, 2021
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