Case Study 7
Sector - Rural adoption
Solar — Standalone/ agriculture
In India, when the topic of solar energy is raised, the image that comes to mind is always that of grid-connected energy produced either by solar rooftops or grounded mounted ones. We shift to rural India, where the scene is different. Here, solar energy is used for standalone applications as well as occasionally as a mini-grid-connected energy source. Why there has been such a significant shift in the adoption of solar energy across different geographies? This can be related to the country's electricity infrastructure challenges and the financial factors that frequently act as barriers in rural areas.
Most Indians still live in rural areas, and agriculture continues to be their main source of income. It is expected that agriculture contributes significantly to the nation's GDP. However, many villages continue to struggle due to lack of access to energy.
As per an article published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology popularly known as MIT in 2021, “More than 73 million households in remote areas of the world get electricity not from a conventional power grid but rather from sources such as solar lanterns, solar home systems (SHSs) that can power several devices, and local solar-based microgrids. Such off-grid devices and systems provide life-changing services to people who are off centralized electricity grids, and they help spread the use of renewable energy.”
The National Solar Mission also envisioned the Rural Village Electrification Programme (RVEP), which used solar photovoltaic (PV) solutions to illuminate rural homes to fulfil the energy needs of the remote communities. This significantly raised the standard of living in the isolated settlements. Additionally, it considerably lessened their reliance on kerosene, which served as the main source of fuel for lighting options. Depending on the local climate, light from solar sources lasted between three and seven hours.
Over the past decade, there have been many changes. International aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are working hard to promote solar energy adoption as they recognised the advantages it can offer to rural communities. As a result, off-grid microgrid solutions were created for certain geographic areas. Solar-related innovations that address the problems in rural India were on display. Solar-powered appliances include lights, water pumps, water heater, streetlights, fans, and solar energy with home storage. Products like solar sewing machines, roti rolling machines, milking machines, blacksmith fan blowers, photocopy-printer emerged as the livelihood segment. Digital education tools that are solar connected, healthcare solutions, etc also saw acceptance in the rural area.
The government played a significant role by helping through subsidies to overcome the financial barrier. Then, companies offering integrated solutions emerged, offering solar products, financing, and customization based on regional requirements. For many people, this came in as a boon.
From challenges to villages that produce surplus energy using solar rooftops, India has walked a long way. In October 2022, Modhera in Gujarat became the first solar-powered village in India. The solar project has provided Modhera’s residents with a surplus of renewable energy which they sell to the electricity grid.
There are other examples of how solar is being adopted, installed, and used that are eye-opening. Sewing machines that run on solar power, educational facilities that are on solar power, and even a waste management centre that depends on solar for its management.
However, there are still barriers to the adoption of solar power in rural areas due to lack of awareness and post-installation servicing. In villages, awareness sessions and workshops showcasing the advantages of solar energy are becoming a regular feature. And individuals, governments, other business entities are collaborating to provide the practical knowledge to the people.
In this case study we are moving a little away from the usual format. We are talking about how solar solution providers are bringing socio-economic changes to the rural India— an integral part of the country.
Solar power engineers integrated development in rural India
Bangalore-based Selco- India is a social energy enterprise. The company has revolutionised solar uptake in the rural areas of the country, thereby tick marking various UN SDGs through its projects pan India.
The company works on the basic principles laid down by Harish Hande, co-founder Selco- India and a social entrepreneur, who was awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2011 for his pragmatic efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor.
Guruprakash Shetty, AM, Selco- India, informs, “We have installed solar rooftops for around 300 small landholders in the coastal village of Galihole, Udupi in Mangalore. They are using solar power not just for irrigation, but also to milk cows, power streetlights, etc.”
Thereby, the enterprise has developed an end-to-end value chain of rural enterprises, enabled women empowerment, and developed an integrated line of stakeholders to create self-sufficient villages.
Apart from solar electrification, the enterprise has enabled solar-empowered sugarcane machines, photocopier machines in miscellaneous stores, rice mills, flour mills, blowers and power hammers, pottery making machines, millet processing units in and adjacent to the Golihole village.
Empowering the agriculture sector through solar:
Selco-India has empowered the agricultural segment through solar energy in some novel ways. The deployments are off grid solutions, battery backed solar rooftops.
One, farmers are using the solar-powered cold storage to store their yields. “Farmers now refuse to sell their produce for less. They store it in the cold storage, and only sell it for a fair market price,” informs Mr. Shetty.
Secondly, many farmers have set up solar powered workshops to make tomato ketchup and syrup—a value addition to the product portfolio, and an incremental source of income for the family.
Thirdly, the use of solar energy has changed the definition of many women dominated roles. For instance, milking cows is now gender agnostic, and cows can be milked any time of the day because of uninterrupted power supply. Farmers are churning buttermilk as an additional source of revenue.
India is a geographically diverse country. For instance, farmers in Udupi grow rice, coconut, and betel leaves. Rest of the products are purchased from other states. “The same is true for all the regions across the country. Secondly, farmers, a majority of who are small land holders, do not get fair price for their labour or produce because of lack of technology, resources, and awareness. As a result, the bread winners migrate to metro cities. Pan India, many educated youth belonging to the traditional agri families are working in metro cities. All the same, the families back home continue to rely on the neighbouring states for their requirements,” notes Mr. Shetty.
After numerous interactions with the farmers and their families, Selco-India which has been electrifying the rural areas of India through solar energy, decided to take the sustainable route.
According to Mr. Shetty, the enterprise focused on creating end to end value chain and present a produce to end-product shift at the village level. It convinced all stakeholders to unite for the cause and provided its expertise in solar power to the villagers. The villagers are now owners of a variety of enterprises, hitherto unheard of in the rural areas.
There is no one size fits all costing solution for solar, Mr Shetty explains. For some, solar is a costly proposition. For example, a flour mill functions on 2 to 4 HP electrical pump which can cost approximately Rs 4 lakh. But investing the same amount in solar is huge. Selco-India provides grants to the needy villagers, and links them to the financial institute, for a loan. “As a not-for-profit enterprise, we provide the villagers easy access to bank loans for their solar power projects. One of the reasons the villagers trust us is costing and the process is transparent. We do not make false promises of freebees. That is where sustainability works; popular projects must not be grant heavy,” he says.
After installing the solar pump, Selco-India educates farmers to optimize the use of solar energy to supplement the company’s green energy concept. “In the villages where electricity is available for 2-3 hours a farmer maximises the use of the electric pump during those hours. However, solar energy is available for long, and we teach farmers to optimize the use of pump accordingly. Any project must be self-sustained,” Mr. Shetty states.
After a gruelling day of labour on the field, Sumanna, a rural woman was dependent on the traditional sewing machine to earn an extra income. Selco-india enabled her to utilise her rooftop and helped her to install a solar PV which is now not just providing electricity to her house, but also powering her sewing machine.
In the last two to three years, Sumanna has seen 50 percent increased efficiency and productivity. It is because of such initiatives that women like Sumanna have taken leadership positions and are employing more women to the workforce or inspiring more women to start their own small enterprise. Infact, Sumanna has inspired 50 women to start their enterprises from home.
Overall, Selco-india is aligning the solar power projects with rural electrification in such a manner that the process to enable holistic development, integrated community development, sustainable growth and stops migration.
Villagers are migrating to cities. Besides the cost of transportation, migration is adding burning fossil fuel, adding to the burden on the planet
Box: Some key offerings in the agri sector:
Selco-India has installed 50,000 to 60,000 solar-powered home lighting equipment in rural households, and has enabled about 3,000 to 4,000 farmers across Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and some part of north India, to generate income through solar
“As a not-for-profit enterprise, we enable the villagers’ easy access to bank loans for their solar power projects. One of the reasons the villagers trust us is costing and the process is transparent. We do not make false promises of freebees,” says Mr. Shetty, AM, Selco-India