The Renewable Energy Revolution


For the better part of the last century, India, like other countries in the world, built massive dams and large thermal plants to provide power to millions in the countryside. While this resulted in households across the country having improved access to energy, there were hidden, unacknowledged costs attached to this construction spree. As a matter of fact, every large dam that was constructed resulted in the displacement of thousands of people and the irreversible alteration of sensitive ecosystems. Furthermore, in the quest for gargantuan amounts of coal needed to power these thermal plants, forests of central India inhabited by tribal communities were ravaged. The indigenous people displaced by the brute power of the state ignited a growing disillusionment among the tribal families. This, among other factors, also played a pivotal role in the proliferation of the hitherto localised Naxalite movements to a national scale.

The defenders of fossil fuels and large dams have argued that India did not have a choice. Post-independence, faced with a precarious situation of a burgeoning population and insufficient energy options, India had to build large dams and rely on coal for access to cheap and reliable energy. Even if it meant sacrificing livelihoods of farmers and appropriating lands of the tribal population, it was permissible since it enabled India to propel itself into modernity and industrialisation.

Post-independence, faced with a precarious situation of a burgeoning population and insufficient energy options, India had to build large dams and rely on coal for access to cheap and reliable energy.

However, today, we do have a choice. A choice sans sacrifice.

The future belongs to renewable and clean energy. In this future, the construction of large dams as well as reliance on coal as a primary energy source shall be rendered unviable. It will be possible for people to have better access to cheap electricity, without the collateral damage of tribal land grab or environmental catastrophes. The progress made by renewables, especially solar energy, could transform the face of rural India. Based on this potential it is important to explore the avenues in which the renewable energy revolution could alter the nature of energy consumption and affect public health.

Democratization of Energy

According to a study conducted in 2015, even though 96% of villages and all the urban areas in India were officially electrified, only about 30% of households in the country did not have access to electricity. The only explanation behind this statistical peculiarity is the manner in which the government defines an electrified village. A village is considered electrified if public places in the village and 10 per cent of its households have access to electricity. In reality, often in the rush to meet targets, officials do the bare minimum to ensure that the village can be declared as electrified. More often than not this means the electricity is provided exclusively to 10% percent of households that consist mostly of the local strongmen – upper caste and upper class. Moreover, even after the village is ‘electrified’, there is no guarantee that the electricity supply will be constant and sustainable. As an indictment of the reality, the same study cited above revealed that only 5% of households in Uttar Pradesh received more than 20 hours of electricity.

The generation of electricity in India is highly centralised, with the bulk of production coming from plants above 100 MW. Such large units are usually situated in remote areas, and power has to be transmitted to the cities and scattered villages through a complex mesh of transmission lines. Thus, the poor supply of electricity in rural areas can be pinpointed to the creaking transmission and existing distribution infrastructure. However, with the onset of the solar energy revolution this is all set to change. In the coming years, remote communities and rural households will be able to generate electricity through solar or windmills in their own backyard. Mountain communities will be able to harness the power of streams through run-of-the-water mini hydel plants. The electricity generated would have two destinations – one to be stored in batteries for domestic consumption and the other to be sold to the grid. Through this setup, if enough households start producing their own electricity, the need for large central power stations will be made redundant, heralding the end of an era – a bureaucratic and centralized system offering citizens a sub-standard service. Instead, it would be replaced by a decentralized era where individuals and households control their own power supply and reliability is ensured through the exercise of controls that households would have over the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity. Subsequently, due to lower transmission and distributions costs as well as shorter supply chains, electricity will be expected to become affordable, accessible and democratised.

Tackling the Crisis: Health and Climate Change

Besides displacement and rehabilitation of people, there are far more pernicious externalities associated with the construction of dams, plants and coal mines. The poor quality of existing thermal plants has resulted in skyrocketing of emissions to extremely dangerous levels – a trend that has resulted in some of the highest incidences of respiratory diseases in the world. The consistent inclusion of Indian metropolitan cities in the global list of the most polluted cities only corroborates the existing threat. The impact of coal run plants has been another critical environment cost that cannot be ignored. Over the past fifty years, India has witnessed a volatile change in its climate with frequent heat waves, floods and droughts. The predictability of the Indian weather has been replaced with uncertainty that has increased agrarian distress and damaged traditional ecosystems. Thus, the fossil fuel era has not only contributed significantly in inflicting great harm to public health but also damaged the environment in equal measure.

However, with increasing penetration of renewable sources of energy, the pace of climate change is expected to slow down. Once solar energy becomes the mainstay of energy for rural households across the country, large plants and their emissions would be deemed unnecessary. Moreover, once vehicles can be powered by clean electricity instead of oil, the very foundation of today’s oil based economy will be altered, setting India, along with the world, on the path to unprecedented change in the functioning of its economy.

Generally, at its onset, a new technological revolution tends to benefit the richest and affluent the most. However, the impending renewable energy revolution, powered by the democratization of technology and equal access and benefits to all citizens in India is poised to transform and improve the lives of the poor and marginalised.

All 300 million of them.

Nixon PJ is a Data Associate at Ank Aha.