India has huge chance to prove itself as an off-grid clean energy leader, says SELCO co-founder

4 July 2014

Our India team interviews Harish Hande who co-founded SELCO INDIA in 1995, about the future of renewables in India and how we can open up clean energy access to off-grid, rural communities there. SELCO is a social enterprise that aims to eradicate poverty by promoting sustainable technologies in rural India and a partner with The Climate Group under the BIJLI- Clean energy for all initiative.

The Climate Group: Do you think that we need to create new enterprises or help mainstream sustainable energy within existing ones? And what do you think are the factors that will best help achieve these goals?

Harish Hande: We need to completely rethink the way energy access needs to be promoted in India. Many of the existing enterprises are not very suited to diversify into sustainable energy, especially if one is trying to focus on bringing energy access to the poor. New enterprises at the grassroots level have to be incubated and promoted, just like how it was done during the agriculture revolution in the early 1970s. Many of the enterprises will have to come from the very client base it is targeting - else it will be always be institutions that come with a top to bottom approach, which will be unsustainable.

Entrepreneurship as well as technical courses, in the field of energy access and sustainable energy, should be introduced at the level of RUDSETTs (Rural Development & Self Employment Training Institutes) and ITIs (International Trade Information Services). Large pools of risk capital and of small individual values, should be made accessible for the entrepreneurs graduating from these courses. The capital can be routed via the large number of regional rural banks in the country - the very banks that were responsible for the financing of the entrepreneurs during the agricultural revolution.

How do you rationalize with the policymakers and influencers who constantly push for subsidizing products and services for the poor rather than creating a sustainable value chain?

Actually it is not true that all the policymakers and influencers push for subsidies. Much of the time the industry has itself been responsible for the need of such incentives, which is often a short fix. The primary problem is that there has been no concentrated efforts to bring all stakeholders, in the space of energy access and sustainable energy, on to the same platform for regular interaction. Lack of such a platform has led to mixed signals and thus mixed policies for short-term gains. Thus some of the stakeholders in India have decided to create an Alliance, known as CLEAN, in order to bring cohesive voices to the sector of off-grid. CLEAN will bring in policymakers, industry players, practitioners and financiers together for a better ecosystem, that will lead to creation of a sustainable value chain.

What is your take on The Climate Group’s approach to convening business leaders to unlock transformative action in the field of off-grid energy?

A very necessary first step, is that along with business leaders, other stakeholders in the value chain need to be brought in (e.g rural practitioners, rural bankers etc). Today the value chain is fragmented and needs to be brought together. Many of the business leaders have little knowledge of the real challenges in the field of energy access and in the rural areas of the country. The Climate Group's approach can bring in more practicality to the direction many of these leaders are assuming to take. In addition, critical CSR funds or resources can be directed toward energy access initiatives for the poor, which is gaining more traction and visibility as an important goal for countries.

At a time when India needs a clean energy revolution, how do you perceive the future of solar in India and how can the new government boost sustainable energy?

India does have huge chance to prove itself as a leader in creating a sustainable value chain in the field of energy access. Providing sustainable energy to the 500 million people who lack it, will not only be a clean energy revolution but will have a huge impact in the reduction of poverty. Here, India can be that beacon of light for many of the other developing countries in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia. Initial signals from the new government have been promising for decentralized energy.

There are two big steps the new government can take:

A. Create short and long term courses in the 1000s of vocational training colleges across the country in sustainable energy (from sales and after-sales service to entrepreneurship). This will be lead to strong linkage between sustainable energy and job creation - surely a long-term impact for the country.

B. Create appropriate and target-based financial programs via the numerous rural financial institutions in the country (e.g Regional Rural Banks, farmer cooperatives). The financial programs should be targeted to two main stakeholders - the end-users for buying the product(s) and working capital for the small and medium scale entrepreneurs at very flexible terms. ?

How much time do you think it will take to achieve universal access to clean energy in rural/peri-urban space in India? What do you think would be the critical drivers to achieve such a scale? 

India should be able to achieve the basics of universal access with the coming decade. Some of the critical drivers I've mentioned - like development of human resources at the ground level (top level will not help), risk capital and innovation funds (for technology and business model experimentation). Scale can be achieved only via replication of processes (business and technology) - we should take a cue from the street vending business which has replicated and thus is successful in bringing in site and segmentation specific solutions.

Learn more about SELCO.

Please note, answers are purely our guest's personal opinion.

You can read more of our interviews with clean tech and climate policy leaders from around the world.

Image by World Economic Forum

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