India currently reports 99.4% electrification, yet there are 304 million people who still lack access to electricity according to the recent draft of the National Energy Policy (NEP) issued by the government’s policy think tank NITI Aayog.
In most countries, electrification means not only being connected to the grid, but also providing homes and businesses sufficient electricity access to meet their daily needs. However, in India the definition of electrification in rural areas, where most of the unelectrified population lives, has been detached from the actual supply of electricity to households. A village is deemed electrified even if only 10 percent of homes and a few rural institutions are connected.
About 237 million people in India, most of them in rural areas, live without reliable electricity. Without electricity, people’s livelihood options are limited, access to basic services is restricted, and quality of life is adversely affected.
23% of India’s population are still thirsting for electricity and millions more who are receiving only poor and unreliable access. Extending wires and poles and adding generation capacity will not significantly impact the access problem. New ideas are needed to make a breakthrough. New models of electricity distribution are emerging. In nearly 110 villages across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand states, more than 40,000 people have access to reliable grid-quality electricity from privately operated renewable energy mini-grids supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Smart Power India program. The impact on life and livelihood is tangible.
Under the Smart Power model, solar power plants built and run by the energy service companies (ESCOs) have higher capacities, not just for lighting homes and shops, but also for serving productive loads like micro-enterprises. Small businesses such as Atta Chakki, computer shops, welding operators, and irrigation pumps can be served at the same time as the telecom towers that are now present in thousands of off-grid villages.
Smart Power for Rural Development (SPRD) offers a complementary model to the delivery of rural electricity using decentralized mini-grids based on renewable energy sources. The initiative seeks to accelerate rural development and, in turn, improve the lives of the poor and marginalized. Through its subsidiary, Smart Power India, The Rockefeller Foundation has supported seven energy companies to expand electricity service in rural villages across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, India. Over the past two years, the initiative has brought power to over 40,000 people, most of whom are poor and from socially excluded groups.
About 55 percent of SPRD household customers are using LED light bulbs for the first time. Among micro-enterprise customers, the availability of electricity has increased the number, type, and scale of businesses, resulting in measurable gains.
The economic growth has been spurred by the mechanization, expansion, and creation of new businesses that required sufficient and reliable electricity previously unavailable to the villagers. Nearly 11 percent of SPRD-connected micro-enterprises have expanded their businesses by adding refrigerators, or other electrical devices, and about 7 percent of micro-enterprises are new – having emerged as a result of available energy. On average, SPRD micro-enterprise clients saw monthly revenues increase by 12 percent.
Equally promising are the social impacts of the electricity, which include improved health, safety, and study conditions, as well as increased mobility after dark. Women, in particular, report an improved sense of safety from better nighttime lighting both in the home and on the street. This is especially meaningful in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have among the highest rates of violence against women in India.