Solar Power Reaches 100,000 in Rural India

indian family
Household solar systems have turned sunlight to electricity for some 100,000 rural Indians.

A solar photovoltaics (PV) pilot project in India has transformed the lives of approximately 100,000 people living in poverty-stricken rural regions by providing several hours of uninterrupted lighting every night. The goal of the $1.5 million project, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was to facilitate household financing for solar home systems. Its success has inspired satellite programs to improve energy access in Algeria, China, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, and Mexico. 

In the absence of alternative energy sources and plagued by the unreliability of local electricity grids, many rural regions in India have had to rely on polluting kerosene lamps and household stoves to meet lighting needs. According to UNEP, a single wick of kerosene can burn up to 80 liters of fuel, emitting more than 250 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. In developing countries, the use of kerosene and other “dirty” fossil fuels for indoor lighting is responsible for 64 percent of deaths and 81 percent of lifelong disabilities from indoor pollution for children under the age of five. Other studies report that while kerosene and similar fuels contribute 20 percent of global lighting expenses, they supply only 0.1 percent of lighting energy services. 

Approximately 45 percent of people in India are hooked up to a power grid and endure daily power failures. Those without grid access must often walk long distances to buy a few liters of expensive kerosene, which can be scarce because much of it is traded on the black market as an illegal way to dilute fuel and diesel. “Kerosene used by the poor for lighting is often unaffordable, unavailable, unsafe, and unhealthy, while the electricity power grid is unreliable,” explained Timothy E. Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation. Speaking about the new solar project, he noted that, “To provide even this little degree of electricity reliability and independence is to empower the poor in ways that can profoundly alter lives for the better.”

The largest barrier to the switch to solar in developing countries has been the lack of financing for clean energy in poor communities. Often, the world’s poorest people can afford only highly polluting options such as kerosene. With a program such as UNEP’s Solar Home Systems project, communities have easier access to financing, with the opportunity to pay more money upfront to acquire better, cleaner technologies that can save money in the long-term while improving the quality of life.

The UNEP project aims to make power affordable by encouraging local and national banks to finance small loans—usually $300 to $500—for a system that typically contains a roof-installed solar PV module, storage battery, charge controller, interior wiring, and switches and fixtures with the capacity to power two-to-four low-watt compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and a DC fan. Two of India’s leading banks, Canara Bank and Syndicate Bank, were the project’s original partners, jointly supplying low-interest loans that could be repaid over five years through their 2,000 rural branches. A vendor qualification process coordinated through the banks resulted in five solar vendors offering a variety of competitive products that were eligible for financing, offering customers flexibility in their choices.

With the project, the number of financed solar home systems in the pilot region of Karnataka state in south India increased from 1,400 in 2003 to 18,000 today, providing power to approximately 100,000 people. The systems supply a few hours of continual power in homes or small shops to run small appliances and provide improved reading light. According to the UN, “the lighting has been credited with better grades for schoolchildren, better productivity for cottage-based industries such as needlework artisans and even better sales at fruit stands, where produce is no longer spoiled by fumes from kerosene lamps.”

Poverty alleviation and the mainstreaming of renewable energy in rural areas are the likely long-term results of the project, along with the immediate improvement of rural livelihoods and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. “Lack of access to affordable energy produces one of poverty’s most powerful grips,” explained Eric Usher, the head of UNEP’s Renewable Energy and Finance Unit. “This project empowers people to invest and helps free them from reliance on government interventions.” The official report on the project will be presented during the annual two-week session of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development, which began on April 30 in New York.


This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.