Last week, India got hit with one of the world's worst power outages in history last week, leaving more than 600 million people (nearly one tenth of the world's population) without electricity for days.
Everyday, at least another 400 million Indians lack access to electricity. Yet, some of the formerly energy poor, rural villagers throughout the country found themselves better off than the middle class during the blackouts thanks to solar power. Many village homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels were able to keep some electric pumps supplying water for fields parched by recent monsoon weather.
With a lack of rain, India's hydroelectric dams have suffered a significant shortfall. Additionally, the supply of coal has been insufficient, leaving parts of northern India without enough electricity to supply to meet demand. Unfortunately, and ironically, coal miners in the northern part of the country were trapped when their electric lifts failed during the outages.
Although the country has significant coal reserves, mines have been held back from opening due to disputes over environmental and land permits. A lack of investment in technology has prevented output from keeping up with demand, and the country now faces a frightening scenario.
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Although Indian consumers receive heavily subsidized electricity and farmers get free power, officials claim that much of the free power is illegally diverted to factories, leaving the grid overburdened and electric companies heavily in debt.
“India’s basic energy shortage is compounded by the policy of selling electricity to consumers at politically correct prices,” the Hindustan Times wrote in an editorial. “The government-owned distribution monopolies in the states have all but lost their ability to buy power because their political bosses force them to sell it cheap, sometimes free, to voters.”
As one of the world's most populated countries, India's energy demands from an expanding middle class is starting to pose a major challenge. Unable to keep up with the consumption-led boom in recent years, the failure to invest in India's infrastructure has slowed the country's economic growth to about 6 percent.
In the wake of crippling outages, Bridge to India has released an analysis describing the role of solar power in the India's future.
“The predicament has to be answered at a more fundamental level,” notes Ratnottama Sengupta of Bridge to India’s Market Intelligence Team. “India still has 400 million people who are not grid connected. As coal imports go up due to shortage of domestic supply and oil prices have already risen by more than 40% this year, India must explore its untapped wealth of renewable sources of energy to overcome its structural power challenges.
“Solar power can play a key role in this: it is plentiful, locally available, can be harnessed by small plants in decentral locations and it is increasingly economical.”
The company describes a future system based on interlinked supply and demand areas to bring more stable, flexible and inexpensive power to people across the country. Although the intermittency of solar power is still an issue, thermal or battery storage helps address those issues. Regardless, distributed solar solutions can provide complementing grid power backup systems to make energy supplies more secure.