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Decentralised solar energy provides an opportunity to alleviate poverty in India by harnessing it for income-generating activities, Indian solar pioneer Harish Hande says in an interview

A village blacksmith using a solar-powered blower in Karnataka (Photo by Selco)

A village blacksmith using a solar-powered blower in Karnataka (Photo by Selco)

The journey of India’s solar sector has seen many success stories, and along with them, it has brought to the fore some remarkable people who have made this possible through their persistent endeavour.

One of the first names synonymous with this journey is that of Harish Hande. A graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and with postgraduate and doctoral degrees from University of Massachusetts, US, Hande co-founded Selco in 1994-95.

He took this initiative after he saw how beneficial solar energy had been in the rural areas of the Dominican Republic and Sri Lanka. Since its launch, Selco has touched the lives of over 500,000 households across six states in India.

Recognised as a pioneer in rural energy, Hande has received several awards including the Magsaysay award in 2011, the Zayed Future Energy Prize in 2018 and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2018.

In an interview, Hande stressed on the need to focus on the demand for power, rather than merely considering supply. He also believes that innovations in sustainable energy can help alleviate poverty in India. Excerpts:

What is the state of solar energy in India now? Compared to when this movement began, do you feel we have made considerable progress?

In terms of awareness, we have come a long way for sure. In the late 80s and early 90s, people would wonder as to how a solar panel generates electricity and whether it was a magic show. Also, solar was linked to just lighting — streetlights and lanterns. Now, solar can provide any sort of load, whether it is a small house in a slum or a large country.

The beauty of solar is that it can generate electricity where it is needed. That is where decentralisation of solar helps.

You have said that we need to focus on demand and not supply. Please explain.

Currently, we emphasise on the supply side and not demand. Instead, we need to understand as to how many MWs of solar or how much fossil fuel is needed and what should be the type of solution, but we should come from the demand side.

We need to think why a person demands electricity. When it comes to power, it is always talked about from a supply side — how many MWs of coal fired plants must be set up, how many MWs of solar must be put — and never from the demand side. Considering demand is important as it pushes efficiency. For instance, if it is needed for a sewing machine, how efficient is the machine. Then you decide on what is the electricity you need, rather than saying I will supply what I want, you decide what you are going to use it for.

Once you look at solar power from the demand side, it pushes efficient utilisation. That is the whole beauty of looking at decentralisation of solar power.

While there has been considerable progress of decentralised renewable energy as a concept in India, do you believe there is scope for improvement?

I think this is where the awareness needs to come in because people feel the grid has its own value and its own model. During those periods of time when generation of electricity could not have been done in every place, as there were coal mines in the eastern part of India, thermal plants had to be built accordingly so that the cost of transporting coal would be reduced and then the transmission lines could be put up.

As the transportation system became more efficient, it was possible to build plants. Still, it was linked to the supply of raw material and therefore, the grid made sense.

Harish Hande, chief executive officer, Selco Foundation (Photo by Selco)

Harish Hande, chief executive officer, Selco Foundation (Photo by Selco)

Now, the fuel source is decentralised, the sun is decentralised, so why not use it to design a system in a similar manner? It is a question of a change in the thought process, changing the belief that the grid is king and more awareness. If we see developed countries like Germany and the United States, they are going towards decentralisation. For instance, if we consider a modified rooftop model in the US, it is decentralised. So, it is essentially a question of awareness and thought process.

You have spoken about how poverty can be reduced through innovations in sustainable energy. How could this be made possible?

To eradicate poverty, we need to look at quality of life and increased incomes. In many cases, increased income depends on decentralised businesses; whether we are talking about a local food processing or snack-making entrepreneur, a blacksmith or a motorcycle repair shop, they suffer from two things.

One is technology that can help them modernise their income. The other is the regular input of energy to run equipment, whether it is a roti-roller machine or a sewing machine.

When we look at decentralised energy, there is a push towards efficiency because the more we install solar, the more it may become more expensive for the poor. So, the question that arises is, how do we make a sewing machine more efficient? Therefore, the combination of efficiency and solar power leads to increasing the incomes of the poor.

If we look at it from a supply side, we only talk about the supply of electricity, but we do not question for what. There is a need for energy because one needs to, for instance, run a sewing machine for a few hours. So the question is, how many hours is it needed for?

When we buy a TV set, we do not buy the remote separately, it comes with the set. Similarly, when a person buys a sewing machine, the solar panel comes with it. When she buys a blacksmith blower, it is equipped with a solar panel.

Therefore, it is all about how we institutionalise solar in a way that it becomes a part of the package itself. To scale it up, one would need to go to NABARD (a financing agency) and check on the finance facility for an income-generating activity for the poor.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India’s solar energy output is going to match coal-fired power by 2040. Do you think this is possible?

We understand that there are larger needs of the country. I might come from the sustainability industry, but we also need to consider practicalities in a country like ours. Therefore, we need to look at the number of houses and people dependent on solar power, rather than what the supply of energy is from solar.

The moment we talk about how many people use solar, we also need to consider factors such as their primary source of power and what is required to create awareness. Moreover, finance plays a decisive role in this matter. The desire to switch to solar being a case in point.

Take the example of solar water heaters. In 1997-98, there were hardly two or three manufacturers of water heaters in Bangalore. When the finance ministry pushed refinancing at 5% rate of interest and it was stated that banks would finance solar water heating at 5%, within a year, 25 water heater manufacturers came up.

In the next four to five years, the government of Karnataka made the installation of solar water heaters mandatory if an individual wanted to buy a house. If we look at the bottom 40% of the population, I think 2040 is not required; between 2030 and 2035, we should be able to look at these households using solar.

In India, there have been a lot of policies promoting renewable energy. What are the initiatives that could help improve the solar energy sector in the country?

The biggest challenge we face is a disconnect between the grassroot organisations that are good in implementation and the policy think tanks in Delhi. The issue is, if I need to know rural Bihar or rural Karnataka, it is not just the language, that there is a need to speak Kannada or Bhojpuri—-the farmer should be able to converse with the visiting official as if she is another farmer.

What happens most of the time is that an official or a team of officials comes and does a survey at a hierarchy. The attitude is: “I know it, you tell me the answers to the questions I ask.” The official has the approach that she knows better and that is a huge disconnect.

Good policies happen only through dialogue and unfortunately, dialogue happens at the Delhi level, but not between the end user and the policy. It is all about how we communicate; it is not just about policy. Even if there is a brilliant policy, how does it get communicated? How does it reach the person it is meant for? It is the thinking that needs to change, for that is where the issue is.

We are a country of problems. It also means we are a country of solutions. How do we make India a country that is a powerhouse of solutions. If you really want to compete with a country like China, stop competing on the basis of trade.

Our attitude should be such that someone from Ethiopia comes to India with the belief that he will find a solution in India. That is what we need to aim at.

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