India has witnessed tremendous progress in the power infrastructure since the dawn of independence. Complete electrification of Indian households, a distant dream for rural citizens, just a decade ago is turning into a reality to be fulfilled in the near future. Promising schemes of the Government of India coupled with concentrated efforts of state agencies and private developers are major drivers, propelling the power industry and consequently creating enormous opportunities for the growth of industrial sectors.
Though, ambitious projects have been envisaged by the government, there remain challenges with regards to infrastructure development and last mile connectivity, which have to be addressed immediately. Any lag in planning shall result in deceleration and stinted growth, affecting not only industries but the hopes of millions of Indian’s who now dream of lit up homes. A promising development in the power sector can be seen in the wake of adoption of micro grids. Many view them as a saviour of the Indian electrification aspirations and rightly so, because not only do they ensure connectivity but also assure supply of power. Remote locations receive 4-5 hours of power supply in some pockets, while there are many others which receive no power at all.
Micro grids are set-up in remote locations where the grid is unable to reach or supply adequate power. Developed by private players, these power houses serve a community of neighbouring villages, reaching homes, schools, clinics, agricultural lands and even telecom towers, which serve as a source of sustained revenue for the developers. Since, delivering of power within the vicinity, requires substantial investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure, the tariffs of micro grids presently remain higher than the traditional grid. One pole is required for a distance exceeding 40 metres which raises costs. The infrastructure cost as estimated by some Discoms amount to Rs2 Lakh/km. Apart from this there are costs of wiring upto the home and setting up metres, which cost over Rs 500. Thus, they require astute and meticulous planning to safeguard cost over runs from oversizing the infrastructure facilities. Also, they shouldn’t be undersized either, which would make them incapable of meeting peak demands or capacity additions in the future.
The end consumers tied to a micro grid pay a marginal premium, but the miniscule stretch in cost is worth the luminescence eliminating decades of darkness. The initial set-up of the micro grid involves discussion amongst all related parties, including the micro grid-developer, the village panchayat head and members of the local community. This activity ensures that the developer is protected from any regional or political conflict and allows for transparent functioning. Once the requirements and consent of the parties involved is ascertained, the developer obtains necessary government approvals for setting-up the grid.
While setting-up a micro grid has some challenges, managing the grid supply is even more daunting. The developer faces delays in collection of payments, while theft and leakage further add to operating woes. There are politically sensitive issues for e.g. electricity supply to agricultural pumps, which necessitate collaboration and inclusion of government officials. Further, the maintenance of lines, transportation costs to cover a large cluster of villages and inventory requirements, demand for experienced personnel at the site.
Typically, the micro grids being developed in India tap into solar energy, providing electricity to households at fixed times in the morning (5 a.m to 7 a.m) and evening (5.30 p.m to 7.30 p.m), i.e. the times before and after rural folks leave and return from work. The electricity generated through the rest of the day is supplied to telecom towers, which require 10-12 kW loads. They add to the bottom line of developers. Until now the supply to rural households is available only during fixed hours of the day, however as this model becomes widely acceptable and demands soar, the period of supply will have to be extended. To meet such a requirement would entail the use of storage for meeting peak and demands at night time. Using storage in the present scenario would unduly escalate costs for the developers which they may not be able to recover from rural customers. However, with the sudden rise in adoption of micro grids at villages and also the last mile connectivity program of GOI, which may not be able to supply all households even in the coming years, there is a strong indication that micro grids may be the answer, to power despair of rural communities.
Micro grids are being diligently explored in developing countries across the globe, especially in African countries which are extremely power deficient and have ample solar radiation to make a progressive case for micro grids. In the Indian context, micro grids have to prepare themselves to act as anchors of power, in deficient rural regions, as well as prepare for augmenting their capacities, technology and infrastructure to cater to foreseeable demands of the future. Introduction of government subsidies can support them in initial phases but to survive and flourish they shall have to plan, manage and execute at a much detailed level and strengthen their competencies, thus enabling sustained growth for themselves as well as the households they serve. Last but not the least, there is a critical need to establish strong bonds with local communities for smooth functioning and to avert any regional or political conflicts from affecting the micro-grids adversely.