Clean Tech

The microgrid revolution in Bihar

M. Ramesh | Updated on: Jan 09, 2022
A blue touch to a green landscape  Standalone solar-based electricity systems installed in Murehra village, Kaimur district of Bihar

A blue touch to a green landscape Standalone solar-based electricity systems installed in Murehra village, Kaimur district of Bihar

Microgrid Project for Rural Electrification in Bihar

Microgrid Project for Rural Electrification in Bihar

How electrification lit up some 44,000 households spread across 240 villages. M Ramesh reports

Deep in the interiors of rural Bihar, in villages that lie in the lap of tiger-inhabited hills and rivers that are home to alligators, a revolution has taken place quietly. The revolution is the effect of one single project, of two lobes, with each lobe having thousands of sub-projects.

It is a project that has touched the lives of some 44,000 households, spread across 240 villages. To put it simply, these people now have something they never had before — electricity.

Nothing can capture the project better than this data point: In January 2018, India had 63 microgrids, or networks that generated and distributed electricity in a particular area, with generation capacity of 1.9 MW. A year down the line, this number has increased by at least 373 microgrids and 12.8 MW of capacity, not counting the 11,961 ‘standalone’ systems.

Challenging terrain

We are talking about a solar-powered rural electrification programme under the Government of India’s ‘Saubhagya scheme’ in operation over the last year and just got fully implemented.

L&T Construction was given the ₹1,000-odd crore project and to the company and the country, it was a first of its kind. For, it is not easy to build 373 microgrids and, worse, 11,961 single-panel, standalone systems in such remote areas. To build, say, a billion-dollar, 1,000 MW plant in a solar park is nothing compared with putting up a 96 microgrid network in West Champaran, a district that abuts Nepal and abounds with tigers.

Many of the villages fall within the Valmiki Tiger Reserve, home to some 40 majestic cats. And if you thought that doing 77 microgrids in the Supaul district, which lies in the plains, is less difficult than in West Champaran, you don’t know Supaul well. The deadly Kosi river flows through it and in some places, is so broad that you can’t see the other bank. Or, 140 in Kaimur district, home to three unpredictable rivers — the Karmanasha, the Durgawati and Kudra.

Road connectivity is bad and you have to carry tens of solar panels, each as big as a man’s hands-span, and all the other paraphernalia, down to the last bolt, in boats across the rivers, keeping a sharp eye out for alligators. But there was no other way to reach electricity to these villages, says Pratyaya Amrit, Principal Secretary, Energy Department, Bihar, and Chairman, Bihar Renewable Energy Development Agency. It was impractical to attempt putting up power poles in the middle of the rivers or on the heavily-forested hill slopes. Hence microgrids. The State government selected L&T through a tender.

Shaji John, who heads solar initiatives in L&T, says the first task was to find out what works best in each place. Obviously, villages with a sizeable population would be better served by a microgrid — a system with a small solar power plant and a network of cables, reaching each household.

But what should be the size of the solar plant? It depended upon the villagers’ requirements.

The first step, therefore, was to conduct a door-to-door survey. L&T did — it talked to 51,000 respondents. The requirements were varied. For instance, only 17 villages were big enough for 50 kW solar plants; most of the villages needed 10 kW or 20 kW systems.

The more difficult task was to bring electricity to villages that were sparsely populated, where households were far-flung and even a microgrid was not feasible. The answer was a standalone system — one solar panel for each house, a cable bringing electricity into the house. There have been instances when poles and panels had to be carried up the hills by people on their backs, or by donkeys.

The project was “understandably delayed” a little, says Amrit, observing that L&T was more like “partners than contractors”. Nearly 12,000 households received their first electric light and fan in this fashion. The district of Kaimur got the most — 3,396 systems, followed by Supaul (2,720), Paschim Champaran (1,283) and Rohtas (1,607). The villagers are happy. “ Pehle andhere mein bahut dikkat tha, zyada padh na paye, ab light aa gaya, ab padhenge, aur bacchon ko bhi padayenge ” (earlier, it used to be dark, we could not read much, but now light has come, so we will study, and we will make our children study) is a telling comment from Sita Devi of Pachmahal village in Kaimur district.

Lessons from Bihar model

But what is the business model? All the assets are owned by the two electricity distribution companies of Bihar. The households pay a flat monthly fee – ₹30 for those below poverty line, and ₹60 for those above. L&T is in charge of operations and maintenance, and collection. Amrit insists the tariffs are sufficient for the discoms. Now, on the back of this experience, Bihar wants to take solar further. Amrit speaks of “an experiment to see how people respond when they have 100 per cent electricity”. The idea is to see how commercial activity — as opposed to just the convenience of lights and fans — takes root.

The experiment is being conducted in partnership with Mitsui of Japan, in three districts – Nalanda, Supaul and Araria, providing the villages with means to charge electric vehicles and cold-store vegetables. Looking ahead, Bihar wants to use solar energy to supplement grid power in 100 more villages.

Bihar has built the country’s largest microgrids, standalone systems cluster. The country could draw useful lessons from it. The experience of companies like Mera Gao Power and Husk Power in providing microgrid and standalone solutions to un-electrified villages has not been good, mainly because of collection issues and interference from local powers. Mera Gao Power’s co-founder and the public face of the company, Nikhil Jaisinghani, has quit.

Perhaps solar-powered rural electrification systems work when the government owns the assets, and is prepared to trade off immediate returns against long-term social spin-offs.

Published on April 23, 2019
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