Off-grid clean energy: the biggest development and emissions reduction opportunity

Reading time: 4 minutes
17 August 2015

This week The Climate Group hosts the first-ever India Off-Grid Energy Summit in New Delhi. Mark Kenber, CEO, The Climate Group, writes about the huge opportunity that connecting rural communities to clean energy offers for addressing the twin issues of development and emissions reductions in one of the fastest-growing countries in the world.

When we introduced our Bijli – Clean Energy for All project, in three Indian states two years ago, we set ourselves one goal: to prove that it is possible, and economically profitable, to roll out off-grid clean energy.

We developed a model with local partners, selling solar-powered electricity to rural villagers, with the aim of understanding how a sustainable, commercially viable model – no longer dependent on philanthropy for its survival – could be brought to scale.

Two years later, with the help of principal funder the Dutch Postcode Lottery as well as dozens of local Indian companies and organizations, we have connected well over our target number of people to clean and cheap solar power, LED lights and micro grids.

Through our initiative, local partners make a good living and the villagers pay less then they did when they were still relying on dirty kerosene lamps.

Global impact

But on a wider scale, this model also has the potential to connect millions of people in India, South Asia and other parts of the world to clean, cheap electricity, providing them with a platform for moving out of poverty while avoiding the carbon emissions associated with conventional development models.

This transition is directly connected to two important United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

  • SDG number 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  • SDG number 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum).

It is widely recognized that access to reliable, clean energy is a pre-condition for sustainable development in both emerging and developed economies.

Our own research – including a report published in partnership with Goldman Sachs Center for Environmental Markets and other project outputs – shows there are significant social and health benefits, on top of the huge economic and environmental potential for off-grid energy in India and beyond.

kerosene solar graphic

The reason we started this work in India is simple: there are 350 million people in the country with no access to energy at all. And, with energy the lynchpin of education, health and income generation, this lack of access also denies these same people a standard of living which we would all consider a basic human right.

It is hard, if not impossible, to think of a community anywhere in the modern world that has achieved that quality of life embodied in the millennium development goals, and now the SDGs, without access to reliable and affordable sources of energy.

But supplying electricity to every family and business in India isn't so simple. Connecting off-grid communities to the Indian grid would generate a massive addition to the country’s GHG emissions.

With its largely coal-based supply, India generates some of the most carbon intensive electricity in the world, with average CO2 emissions at 1.08 kg per kWh of electricity produced. If the 77 million households in India were to keep using kerosene for domestic lighting, India would emit around 7 million tons of CO2 a year.

So connecting to renewable power, as well as being cheaper once costs of grid expansion are taken into account, will save emissions now and into the future. And, given that thermal power plants typically operate for 40-50 years, decisions made now will have long-term impacts.

Economic development 

It is calculated that a transition to efficient off-grid lighting in the whole of South Asia would have an equally significant benefit for the almost 500 million consumers in the region who are not connected to the grid.

Replacing all the kerosene, candles and battery-powered torches with solar LED lanterns would save $US5.6-7.6 billion in fuel costs and avoid 23.3 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

And these are only the direct effects of people replacing dirty, expensive kerosene lamps for LED lamps. The indirect effects – which cover people connected to the main power grid who move to cheaper off-grid solar energy once it becomes available – would be even bigger.

In West Bengal for example, one of the three states where we rolled out the Bijli project, we found that more than 33% of the households we surveyed with access to conventional grid electricity, supplemented their electricity with solar energy as a main source because it is more reliable than the grid.

The Climate Group’s Off-Grid Energy Summit, the first of its kind in South Asia, aims to accelerate this process.

We are bringing together the leading practitioners, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, installers, service providers, policymakers and users in the space to build a shared understanding of the commercial opportunity and develop ways to overcome the existing barriers.

Together we will identify and develop strategies for policies, financing mechanisms and business planning to scale up the switch from a rural energy model based either on connection to a dirty grid or clean power dependent on philanthropy, to one that is commercially-driven, and provides jobs and opportunities for Indian and South-Asian communities.

We know it is possible to connect people to modern, efficient sources of electricity using distributed renewable power. It is cheaper, more accessible and quicker for remote communities. And it is better for people and planet.

Join us at the Off-Grid Energy Summit on August 19 to learn more about the many opportunities available in the off-grid renewables sector in India and beyond.


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