Saturday, November 12, 2005

Decentralized Energy Production in India

I came across two posts about decentralized energy economy on EnviroPundit and Event Horizon. Both of them are featured at the first edition of the Carnival of Greens. Decentralized energy production means
"single (or small groups of) households/businesses produce their own energy through a variety of small localized sources (like small wind turbines, solar panels, fuelcells etc.)."
Both of these posts outline the concept very clearly and in detail. The main factors which make such a concept more and more feasible are:
  • Development of alternative energy sources which have high efficiency.
  • Development of high efficiency energy storage systems.
  • Developments in lighting, heating and air-conditioning equipment which are efficient, use less energy and can work on alternative energy sources.
  • Increased cost of conventional energy. This is providing the economic incentives to consumers to switch to alternatives.
  • Rising threat to energy security from terrorism. A centralized energy generation/distribution structure is more vulnerable and the effects of an attack can be widespread.
In the US and Europe large centralized distribution grids are already in place and this may have some drag on switching to a decentralized structure. In developing countries like India, where the grid has not even reached many areas, decentralized generation shows great promise. Efforts are already underway in many areas. Here are some examples:
  • I came across this post by Sunil which talks about Michael Mazgaonkar's work with the Mozda collective at Juna Mozda in Gujarat. Living with the villagers in Juna Mozda for past 12 years, Michael and his wife Swati have done some remarkable work. Now they have built a small wind turbine to provide electricity to the village. [Mozda Collective website, India Express article]
  • A small micro-hydel power generation project in Bilgaon in Maharashtra, which was funded in part by A.I.D (an organization I work with). Bilgaon is a small village in the Narmada valley. The villagers assisted by activists from NBA (Narmada Bachaon Andolan) built a micro-hydel power plant. (This was in part an inspiration for the story line in the Hindi movie Swades). [Frontline article]
  • The tribal energy project by SuTRA (Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas) to generate energy locally using biofuel - straight vegetable oil (SVO) produced from Honge seeds (Pongamia Pinnata, 'Karanji' in Hindi) which is also available locally. [Articles 1, 2 in Good News India]
All of these projects are in deep rural/tribal areas where the state grid has not reached. They demonstrate the potential for localized generation. These projects have materialized due to the efforts of small NGOs who are dedicated, who have worked in the area for long period of time and developed a bond with the local people. The local people in each case took initiative and stepped in to pick up part of the cost of implementing the projects. In all these project the local people also contributed by means of "Shrama daan" (work donation), which means they provided free manual labor for these projects.

The power distribution in India is controlled by state electric boards. There is shortage of power everywhere in India and there are rolling power cuts. In past these power cuts used be random and businesses and households were at the mercy of the electric boards. Recently the electric boards started publishing a time table for the power cut in the local newspapers. Businesses typically have small generators which run on petrol or diesel to use during the power cuts. When I went to India this summer, I noticed that many people have installed batteries and inverter in their homes. They charge the batteries when the power supply is good and run the inverters during the power cuts. The unreliable power supply is already supporting a small industry which produces generators, batteries and inverters. In cities decentralized production can be made to work and I think there is whole industry that can grow up based on this.

As the cost of renewable sources goes down, individual households, businesses or even housing societies and colonies can implement small projects which will meet their energy needs. Each location will need a different and customized solution based on their needs. There is huge business potential for companies which can provide a full suite of energy generation systems (wind, solar, biofuel, fuel-cell etc.) along with appropriate energy storage and distribution systems. Companies producing the components of these systems such as wind turbines, generators, solar panels, batteries etc. have a huge room to grow. There is a potential for a service industry too, to maintain such systems in good condition.

The main hurdle (and most important one too) is the economic incentives. The main incentives are the saving in electricity bills and reliable continuous power supply. The cost of implementation for these projects is relatively large. So initial projects will have to be targeted towards housing societies or small industrial parks etc. Pilot projects which demonstrate reliability and cost savings can help to attract more people towards such schemes. Companies can tie up with builders and housing developers to implement these projects as a part of new housing schemes.

There is huge scope for innovation in this area. If it is money lying on the sidewalk, "Why hasn't someone picked it up?", I wonder!

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Roger, Gone Green said...

First, let me say that "transmogrified" is one of my favorite words. Also on the list is garbanstangle, snarfbargle, and wrongheaded. There is no point here, I just like these words. (Grin).

Next, let me suggest that the American grid system can actually aid a certain amount of decentralized generation. In California (and other places) we have something called Net Metering. The solar cells on my roof put power into the local grid during the day, others use it, and my electric meter runs backward. At night, when demand is low, I draw some of the power back.

Once a year I get a bill, and if I use a little more than I made, I pay that. As it happens, I expect to have a ZERO electicity bill at the end of the year. The local grid makes solar very cheap and easy, as it does not require batteries!

Transmogrifier said...

Hi Roger, I agree. I didn't do enough research before writing that particular statement. It is possible to use decentralized energy generation using "Net Metering" in the US and Canada.

Sunil said...

TM.....roger is partly right. If a dedicated central grid, with reasonably high efficiency exists, it works well in feedback systems like this for example.

But in India, a decentralized system will work better. Reasons:

1) Huge areas uncovered. It's going to take a huge dedicated effort (very expensive as well) to get power to these places. However, local grids can be set up with local resources, higher local involvement/management and lower cost, and can be catered for local needs.

2) Energy losses in transmission are huge in India (40%, compared to ~7 % here in the States). This means that the energy wasted in India is collossal (there really isn't a huge scarcity of electricity in India). There's no point in expanding a system like this. Local, decentralized systems typically have negligible energy losses.

Roger, Gone Green said...


Yes, I agree.

Interestingly, in a way, decentralized energy production -- on the level of the City, rather than the entire western states grid -- would be a boon to the US too. Although now that I think of it, it is more like re-localizing production, in part by increased in situ production like solar.

This decreases the risk of large scale energy problems, whether failure of aging infrastructure, terror attack or corporate exploitation of the complexities of a huge interconnected system.

Mark said...

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