US and India Progress on Long-Missed Opportunity: Increasing Clean Energy Access

Solar salt water pump Photo by Nehmat Kaur (NRDC).jpg

Co-written with Avinash Kar and Meredith Connolly

Meeting in Washington, DC this week, President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made important commitments for U.S.-India partnership in fighting climate change and accelerating clean energy, echoing discussions at the timely 5th U.S.-India Energy Partnership Summit hosted by Yale University and the Indian think tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) across town. With India’s 300 days of sunshine per year, off-grid, distributed solar energy holds a lot of promise for expanding energy access for the hundreds of millions who depend on diesel or simply don’t have access to reliable energy at all. The new Indian government can work towards meeting its goals of improving livelihoods and increasing energy access while prioritizing clean energy and protection of its vulnerable citizens from the impacts of climate change. And these efforts can spark economic opportunities and generate local jobs for the country’s expanding population. But there are real challenges to making this vision a reality, including the need for increasing awareness of options among these communities and better ways to finance off-grid projects.

This week marked another step in the right direction with joint announcements by the US and India supporting the expansion of off-grid clean energy in India. NRDC is focused on making clean energy access a reality through our work with partners in India on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and especially through our partnership with the impressive Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to expand access to clean energy and energy-efficient pumps for 10,000 saltpan workers in the scorching Gujarati desert salt flats.  As Prime Minister Modi recently wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “With solar and wind power, thousands of Indian villages will be able to get access quickly to reliable, affordable and clean energy, without waiting for large, faraway conventional power plants to be built.”

Relying on large grid-connected energy projects to provide electricity for the 40% of Indians who lack access to the grid – many in remote villages far from cities and existing power grids – could mean a long wait, dependent on relatively long construction and financing timelines for both power plants and transmission lines.

To electrify these energy-poor villages and sustainably provide power to sustain their livelihoods, especially in rural India, small off-grid energy installations that rely on clean and abundant renewable energy sources hold much promise. Working with the local communities to meet their needs as these systems are built from the ground up and involving local people as part of the management, installation, operation and maintenance of these projects as much as possible are key to enhancing local livelihoods through green jobs while providing clean, reliable energy.

In the sun-drenched western Indian desert of Gujarat, which provides roughly 70% of India’s salt, NRDC is partnering with SEWA to increase off-grid energy access to clean energy and improve the lives of saltpan farmers working in salt flats. For years, without access to the energy grid, the saltpan workers have been using diesel-powered generator pumps to draw brine from the ground and then dry it in the sun, and as the price of diesel has risen, the farmers have been spending an increasing share of their small earnings to run the pumps. SEWA has undertaken a pilot to provide clean energy to power the pumps via a solar panel mounted near the pumps, giving the salt-pan farmers an opportunity to save a lot of energy and costs. Together, NRDC and SEWA are now exploring viable financing models, ways to make the pumps more energy efficient, and ways to make sure communities have the information and training they need.

There are many projects liked these being developed across India. As Delhi-based NRDC partner, the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, notes, “there has been a surge in the number of small and medium sized entrepreneurs trying to fill the energy demand-supply gap through off-grid solutions.”  The key to lasting success will be ensuring that these programs have the support they need to not only get off the ground, but to work long-term and to contribute to changes in policy, regulation and financing systems to accelerate clean energy access across India. Increasing access to credit and solar power subsidies through better financing options and better dissemination of information about available programs is critical to expanding clean energy access in these remote communities.

The Indian government and private sector players have taken some steps to support off-grid energy development, but much more action is needed to meet the enormous scale of energy poverty in India.

Although initially the primary focus of central government efforts such as India’s National Solar Mission was on rapidly installing grid-connected renewable energy and growing the clean energy market, distributed off-grid clean energy is an area of increasing attention – and a campaign priority of the new Modi government.  And this reenergized focus comes at a critical time, as the urgency for access to clean energy continues to grow throughout India. As part of the National Solar Mission, the government set a goal of installing 2 gigawatts (GW) of off-grid solar power by 2022. Coordinating under the Solar Mission, India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has provided subsidies to encourage banks to provide credit for off-grid solar projects. And now President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have announced an expansion of the U.S.-India off-grid clean energy initiative named Promoting Energy Access through Clean Energy (PEACE) to include a new private sector investment initiative for enabling energy access and a new focus on mainstreaming super-efficient, high-quality, and cost-effective appliances. 

Climate change is affecting our health, water, food and environment in India, in the United States and around the world. This week, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi recognized the critical importance of increasing energy access, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving resilience in the face of climate change. We have the solutions at our fingertips in energy efficiency and renewable energy, but we need to move faster and smarter to get these solutions in place. And in India, where so many lack reliable energy access and the basic needs that electricity provides, it is crucial that we find ways to move forward with clean energy solutions suited to the realities of the communities in need. In many cases, working with local partners to build the off-grid solutions that work well for each community can create real progress on making clean energy access a reality.

Photo used with permission - N. Kaur, NRDC