November 2, 2015

On the gridlock of rural electricity access in India

On the gridlock of rural electricity access in India

There have been strides made towards rural electrification in India. According to official statistics, most states in the country have electrified over 96% of their villages, some like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have reached 100% of electrified villages. A significant increase from 2005, where only 74% of villages were electrified.

 

The figures certainly look good on paper. However, once again, the devil is in the details.

 

There is a significant problem in how authorities define successful electrification. One would assume that successful electrification means that all dwellings and public spaces in a village, which is considered electrified, would have access to electricity in one form or another. This is not the case, for the definition of an electrified village is as follows.

 

“A village is deemed ‘electrified’, if 10 percent of all the households of the village has electricity access and if electricity is provided to public spaces such as schools, panchayat offices, health centres, community centres and dispensaries.”

 

Therefore, a village will be considered electrified even though the majority of the population do not have access to electricity. Another point is that the definition does not mention the quality of energy access. Often, such electrification may be limited to the census village, and not extend to the hamlets that are around the villages, hamlets that often are not electrified at all.

 

Thus, it is not surprising that according to the International Energy Agency, around 370 million people lack access to electricity in India with around 94% of people having access in the cities and 75% of citizens having access in rural areas.

 

However significant the improvement might be, evidence tells us that, despite recent efforts by the government, there are still a large number of people without access to electricity in rural areas.

 

The amount of energy consumed per capita is anothermetric to gauge energy access. If the per capita consumption is high, it can be said that there is wide energy access.

 

We cannot assess figures like this in isolation. Some data from other regions are provided for contextual purposes. In 2007, the per capita energy consumption in India was 543 kWh, lower than Sub-Saharan Africa (578 kWh), while, in OECD countries, it was around 8500 kWh per capita.

 

Therefore, energy access in India is far from where it needs to be.

 

Moreover, electricity, when supplied, is not free from problems.

 

Electricity in India is inefficient in terms of supply, transmission and distribution. Transmission and distribution losses are conservatively pegged at around 21%; such figures are comparable with Sudan (22%).

 

To put this in perspective, Germany has 4% of transmission and distribution losses. Often, the electricity supplied in rural India is highly subsidized, and there is a large supply-demand gap. This leads to frequent system failures and variable voltages, which ruin electrical equipment.

 

To make matters worse, there is the problem of illegal access to electricity across sectors, and lack of proper metering. Other heavy burdens on an already fragile distribution system.

 

Additionally, though the agriculture reportedly consumes between 19% and 25% of electricity, it generates only 5% of revenue. As this were not enough, in many states, political campaigns promised free electricity for the agricultural sector. Free supply that is meant to be used in irrigation, mostly for ground water extraction.

 

Electricity consumption is often unmetered. Pumps for groundwater extraction require good quality, three-phase electricity supply. Nevertheless, in order to ensure that households get electricity, often only single-phase power is supplied in the evenings.

 

Now, single-phase supply is sufficient to meet basic requirements of lighting. Rural electricity supply in many states is also restricted within specific ranges of time.

 

During my field visits to multiple villages in the state of Telangana (then part of Andhra Pradesh), such incidences were manifest.

 

In villages in the Districts of Nalgonda, Medak and Mahbubnagar, electricity was supplied only for around 6 hours a day, with no fixed timing. Additionally, the electricity supplied was reported to have problems such as extremely variable voltage. There were complaints that three-phases were supplied rarely.

 

The only benefit of such a system seems to be for those who repair electrical goods.

 

There were frequent complaints about infrastructural collapses. Often, infrastructural collapses meant no electricity supply for days.

 

In front of this awkward portrait, several governmental schemes show institutional attempts to provide rural populations with electricity.

 

One such scheme is the central government’s National Electricity Fund (Interest subsidy) Scheme. It subsidizes the interest on loans taken by public and private utility companies for setting up infrastructure in the distribution sector.

 

This subsidy comes together with conditions about reforms in the electricity distribution. Since the electricity distribution companies across India have to cope with enormous debts (around US$31 billion), this sounds like a timely solution, which can activate virtuous investments in infrastructures.

 

Moreover, in order to replace the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), the government has formalized a commitment to invest Rs. 756000 million in the Deendayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana scheme, which aims at providing uninterrupted electricity access throughout villages in India.

 

 

Nevertheless, the scheme maintains both grid extension as a fundamental pathway to rural electrification, and traditional forms of generation, like coal-based thermal power plants. A mistake, if we consider the lack of generation capacity,

 

India has a total generation capacity of 3563.93 GW. This is only 3.2% of the world’s generation capacity for a mammoth country having a sixth of the world’s population. Moreover, evidence shows that thermal power plants is extremely inefficient and polluting.

 

Thermal power plants waste water. On the one hand, in a water-scarce country, this affects scalability. On the other hand, it triggers a negative mechanism, which can justify uninterrupted electricity at expenses of long-term energy and water distribution.

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About Arjun

Arjun

Arjun holds a Master's degree in Environmental Science from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and a Master's degree in Inorganic Chemistry from Osmania University, India. He has worked in non-profit organizations, quasi governmental organizations and has experience in academic research in the environmental sector. Arjun has also worked in the development sector, where he was involved in studying the impacts of Social Safety Net programmes in rural South India. His professional interests include working at the intersection of science and policy in the fields of: energy use in buildings, life cycle analysis, water management, and water reuse and wastewater treatment.

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