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Subaskar Sitsabeshan: How Bijli is connecting Bagnan to low carbon energy

Date
03 May 2014
Subaskar Sitsabeshan: How Bijli is connecting Bagnan to low carbon energy

Subaskar Sitsabeshan, Programme Analyst, The Climate Group, writes about his experiences visiting an Indian village that is part of our Bijli - Clean Energy For All program. Follow Subaskar on Twitter: @SSubaskar.

I was recently on a field visit to Bagnan in the Howrah district of West Bengal for our rural access to energy project, Bijli Clean Energy for All. It was great to see all the work we had designed miles away in contracts, strategy and papers, actually being implemented and making a real difference in people’s day-to-day lives.

As part of Bijli, we have partnered with SwitchON in West Bengal, who have been doing a fantastic job of providing high quality, hand-held solar lanterns through micro credit services - in addition to marketing and distributing home-lighting systems and micro-grid services in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh respectively with other partners.

MICRO-CREDIT

My first stop during this visit was to the office of Bagnan Gramin Mahila Sammelan (BGMS), a women’s self-help group in Howrah, who are working with SwitchON for distribution of hand-held lanterns in the area.

Moshai Gopal Ghosh, who is running the group, mentioned the annual turnover from their microcredit services to women, is around 6.5 crore Indian rupees (over US$1 million).

It was so good to see the green and white saree-clad members of BGMS depositing and collecting receipts for their micro-credit collection, and after an insightful conversation with Gopal, we took a two-wheeler to drive into Bagnan to meet some of the customers who had purchased hand-held lanterns via micro-credits through the Bijli-Clean Energy for All program.

RURAL ENERGY ACCESS

Contrary to the common belief, rural customers in Bagnan who had purchased hand-held lanterns already had existing wired connections to their homes from the national grid, with the only caveat being the unreliable nature of the supply.

However this was election time in India, and the villagers admitted they were receiving an unusually greater supply of electricity than they otherwise do during this period. Only a couple of hamlets in the entire area did not have connection from the national grid and therefore benefitted most from the hand-held lanterns.

But upon enquiry, it was clear cost wasn't the reason the families I met had no wired electricity access, but because a landlord who was between the power tower and the households refused to pass the wires through his land.

I also noted these families were of a particular caste group, which left me wondering if local social dynamics were playing a role in the provision of energy access to this community.

HAND-HELD LANTERNS

Interestingly, when we first commenced the Bijli program last year, there had been mixed messages about the benefits of the solar hand-held lanterns.

Some consultants during the early stages of our project had informed us hand-held lanterns had been in the market since the 1990s, but not taken off well enough to solve the energy crisis - nor had they displaced the demand for kerosene - and so were not worth any further exploration.

But others had said hand-held lanterns are the first step of the energy ladder through which a family gradually migrates towards more sophisticated home-lighting and micro-grid systems, as their socio-economic conditions improve.

Importantly though, others believed hand-held solar lanterns had not picked up in the past primarily due to previous schemes in India where products were distributed free of charge and without the necessary back-up technical support in place.

This gave us the justification to go ahead and instead try the hand-held lanterns through a sustainable market-driven model as part of our program.

In essence that’s the gist of our project in India. We, at The Climate Group do not envisage ourselves to be providing renewable energy on a village-by-village basis in India, for the next ten years.

What we will do is play a catalytic and transformational role in changing how funding goes to the off-grid energy sector, in order to tilt the balance from simply ‘giving’ free products or services to villagers, towards an encouraging sustainable market-driven model approach with potential for scaling up on its own.

SUSTAINABLE GROWTH

It was clear from my field visits that the rural villagers, contrary to the general belief, had money to pay for energy access. What they really need is access to affordable and reliable energy products and services.

Similarly, clean off-grid companies have the proven technologies; all they need is access to financial capital that doesn't come with hidden fine print.

Private investors on the other hand, recognize off-grid energy is an enormous market. All they need? Confidence that the business models prevalent in this space are investment-proof.

Non-governmental organizations and other multinational development organizations should therefore bridge this gap, by playing a facilitating role in connecting the demand for private finance from off-grid companies and mobilizing private investment capital into the space. They can do this by discouraging free products and services that distort the market, while encouraging innovating financing tools for scaling up off-grid energy access.

Bagnan was indeed a welcome and necessary eye-opener that allowed us to check if we were on the right track toward supporting renewably-powered energy access to rural communities and helping drive the low carbon agenda in India.

By Subaskar Sitsabeshan, Programme Analyst, The Climate Group. Twitter: @SSubaskar


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Image by Jarnail Singh, The Climate Group on Flickr

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