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Decentralising Energy Options as a response to climate change in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

India has always touted its estimated potential for generation of power from wind, small hydro, and biomass is around 80,000MW. Suzlon Energy, for example, is building at Dhule, Maharashtra, one of the world’s largest wind farms with a capacity of 1,000 MW.

On the other hand, the Minister of State for Science & Technology while piloting the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, aimed at paving the way for increasing nuclear power, argued that generating the same kind of power from renewable sources like solar would take massive amounts of land, thus indicating that the government and the corporates see large centralised projects as the way forward.

Kapil Mohan, Director, Ministry of Power, Government of India however agrees that increasing Decentralized Distributed Generation (DDG) (also called on-site generation) would significantly reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions. The Ministry of Power has come out with guidelines for village electrification through DDG under Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) in January 2009.

Currently, some sporadic work is being done by NGOs to set up Decentralised Energy systems. However without government’s full commitment and sincerity this is an uphill task. T. Gangadharan of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) shared his experiences on an other platform - Kerala has seen many projects that kick-started with great enthusiasm but fell flat due several loopholes. Judging by what happened to some micro hydro projects that sought government’s involvement, Gangadharan feels that asking the State for help is asking for trouble.

In early 1990, in the remote area of Alacode some social activists installed a stand-alone generating system of 10 KW without informing or seeking support from any State Government authorities. The system has not faced any problems and provides power to 50 families. On the other hand, Karimba Gram Panchayat’s initiative to set up micro hydro system in Meenvallam in Palakkad district was flash in the pan. They approached Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC), the research unit of Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) for technical support. IRTC found the site feasible and a company was registered by the Palakad District Panchayat to implement this project and generate 3MW electricity at a cost of Rs.10 crore. Ten years have passed but the project has not been completed due to delay in providing financial support and land for setting up the system.

INECC and the Decentralized Energy Options’ campaign

The Indian Network for Ethics on Climate Change (INECC), a large coalition of NGOs, has argued for Decentralised Energy Options (DEO). They say that:

• Conventional energy has not yet reached those marginalised communities to whom energy is critical for livelihood;

• DEO offers an opportunity for control and management of energy at the doorstep

• DEO provides us an opportunity to adopt an alternative approach to development in the micro context;

In an interview with CED, Ram Subbramanian, an engineer who has set up several micro-hydel projects in rural areas and tribal areas in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, says that DEO systems will have a greater reach to people and areas not connected to the grid. These systems are also more inclusive since local communities can be involved in the process of setting up the system and managing it.

CED: Why are Decentralised Energy Options inclusive?

Ram Subramanian: Speaking of the main grid, the end user is totally out of the picture. It is generated somewhere, and is transmitted through various mechanisms. The end user will have no clue as to where it is coming from, how much it costs to generate and its ecological impacts. And therefore most of the end users don’t use power judiciously.

Whereas in a decentralized system– for instance if you have a solar power generating system in your house, you would know how much power you are generating and your exact consumption. This brings in a sense of responsibility to use energy judiciously. Secondly, decentralized energy options (DEOs) are efficient. In a central grid system, you generate power somewhere and transmit it over long distances. There is an energy loss of 40% during conversion and transmission of energy. It is one of the least efficient systems in the world. DEO is also more equitable. Everyone in a village gets equal power.

We have seen in many places where we have put micro hydro schemes that people improve the systems on their own. They develop a sense of ownership and take care of the systems. It is not about electricity alone; it brings in development. But DEO also has certain limitations. It is finite so you have to be more disciplined with power usage. You also need planning. For instance, if you want to put a hydro system you cannot increase the volume. After 10 years you cannot install another stream of water to generate more power. But there is no such limitation in solar system where you can have one panel after the other or in biogas in which you can add one more gasifier.

CED: What do you mean by Micro Hydro?

Ram Subramanian: It is called micro hydro because we don’t store water across seasons; we do have small tanks but just for diversion. It can produce up to 1 Megawatt. It is very different from hydro power systems. It has been in use for the last 50 years. It was popularized mainly from Nepal, where it evolved. Initially it was used to generate mechanical energy for grinding wheat and for carpentry.

The micro-hydro consists of a check dam, which diverts the water of the stream, a canal, which leads the water to the forebaytank, a penstock through which the water runs from the tank to the power house, and the actual power house.

In the power house a cross-flow turbine, or reverse installed pump, is driven by the water, which flows through the penstock into the powerhouse. The turbine or pump drives the generator, which produces the electricity. An electronic load controller produces a constant three-phase system. In the villages streetlights can be installed and in the houses lights and power plugs. This system is viable even in very small remote villages. In most places, we have retrofitted existing small dams, to provide the water. We have experimented with using simple pumps in reverse to generate electricity, thus making the technology eminently accessible. And two members of the same village community are trained in the operations and basic maintenance of the power unit.

Power is usually available for 24 hours unlike solar or wind systems because water is available round the clock. You can store and use it. Compared to other technologies, micro hydro is low on maintenance and cost and is long-lasting. But it can be set up only in places where there is some gradient. How much power you can generate will depend upon height and amount of water. If there is less water you need more drop. The maximum power you can get from micro hydro is fixed and it suffers from seasonal variations.

A micro hydro system is suitable only for hilly areas because you need a natural drop - water falls from a height to run a turbine. For the last 15 years, I have been part of this in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the Eastern Ghats. We call them community hydro systems where the community manages the system. For the last 10 years we have put about 10 units in Andhra Pradesh.

Roughly a KW capacity system costs around 1.5 lakhs, so typically a 10 KW system will cost Rs 1.5 million. Usually about 80% is grant money, 20 % is contributed by local people in the form of labour. Before starting a project we generally set up a village electrification committee that takes various work related decisions, manages the system and collects tariff. Usually it is Rs. 50 per month per family and this amount goes in a bank account. When there is need for replacement of parts or need to buy grease etc. money from this account is used.

CED: How do you actually go about doing a technical job like setting up a micro hydel system while involving the Community?

Ram Subramanian: We begin with locating a place and studying its topography, which gives us an idea about how much rainfall there is. Then we talk to the villagers about potential of a micro-hydyo system. If they agree we enter into an MoU with them where they formally agree to support & take it forward. The NGO then send their engineers and a committee of villagers is formed.

The main starting point of developing energy is to go to the local area and look for and start with the sources available – for example is there a running stream? is it a sunny place? Is there tree cover ? etc.

Energy needs are always there. But we need to look into the diverse forms it is being used, and how they are related to the sources - How many kilos of wood, or how many lights? Do you need lights in the first place, or you need something to grind – like paddy dehusking, or flourmill, oil mill. Only then would you try to see how and to what extent should a new source like hydro electricity is needed. The idea is not to supplant any existing efficient energy cycle or cycles, but add electricity to the existing energy stream – an approach which again modern science would find difficult to accept as it keep making devices that will make people more dependent on electricity. The current planning system starts with an energy requirement, and then the scientist is asked to draw up a plan to produce that much energy usually in the form of electricity and oil, and the technologist to reengineer the countryside to make this possible.

CED: If this is the solution, surely Market mechanism like CDM can be used to fund it.

Ram Subramanian: If you ask me, CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) is an excuse that the developed countries use to continue doing what they are doing. I think CDM is ethically wrong because you continue to pump CO2 in the air and then you say you are supporting a project in Putsil (Orissa) which saves 100 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. And you can then continue to pump thousands of tonnes in the air. You see so many CDM consultants everywhere. It has become a way to finance mechanisms. For example, sugar mills make more money out of CDMs than their own businesses. CDM is not a good approach for small projects; it may work for big projects though.

Cluster Development Approach

Integrated Rural Development of Weaker Section in India (WIDA), the NGO which promoted the first micro hydel project at Putsil in Orissa, is part of the INECC effort at evolving decentralised energy options (DEO). Their understanding starts of course with the belief that climate change is fundamentally a development issue, not a pollution problem; but two intertwining themes of decentralisation, and sustainability. INECC has developed the concept of renewable energy hub for a cluster of villages to overcome issues of local appropriateness, scale, technology transfer and sustainability. Following the success of Putsil, the conducted feasibility studies with nearly 20 different organisations in the 4 tribal states (region of North Andhra, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand) designed the cluster approach methodology.

A “cluster” is a group of villages located in close proximity powered by renewable technologies. Villages are clustered in two dimensions: Geographically, if one area is ideal for micro hydro, has access gradient with a water source at the top, such an area is linked to other energy initiatives of other villages. Technologically –where there exists conditions to establish and standardise these technologies.

A mix of technologies is planned in a cluster of villages depending on the local conditions. These include introduction of solar lighting (LED based solar lanterns), micro-hydro projects, and improved wood stoves. These are added to the basket of traditional energy uses. By having community managed and owned electricity sources, alongwith other energy uses, the villagers live in energy security. Further each project links to serve other needs, for example the micro-hydro project is used for harvesting water for irrigation, as well as for organising economic activity in a collective manner, things like rice milling. In some projects, INECC members have implemented a central solar charging station for a village. This makes it possible work out viable scales for higher power and UPS, such that high voltage electricity with 230V for other electronic devices can be supplied.


The INECC experience shows that community based decentralised energy options are able to improve the livelihoods and provide a sustainable development for the most vulnerable which have been excluded from development until now and are affected the most by the impacts of climate change.

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - Inde - -,

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