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The Dark Secret Behind India’s Failing Solar Plan

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Bloomberg

Theft and damage to solar panels has plunged 288 villages and 1,500 hamlets in Maharashtra back into darkness.

India-solar

Children warm and light themselves with a fire inside a house in the village of Bhamana. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Like generations before him, the only light Jurdar Thingya has at night in his one-room mud hut in India’s Maharashtra state comes from a small wood fire on the floor. A broken solar panel is all that the 35-year-old farmer has to remind him of the government’s promise to bring electricity to all of India’s villages.

Bhamana, population 1,500, is two hours’ walk from the nearest surfaced road, across a river that is impassable for months during the monsoon rains. Like other remote villages, it was powered by renewable energy as part of a drive to take electricity to every community in the state, according to Dinesh Saboo, projects director at Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Co., the power retailer.

Maharashtra, home to the financial capital of Mumbai, declared itself fully electrified in 2012, relying on solar panels or small wind turbines to cover remote areas. India considers a village electrified if at least 10 percent of the households and public places such as schools have electricity.

But theft and damage have plunged 288 villages and 1,500 hamlets in Maharashtra back into darkness, according to Saboo. “Most of the equipment is either stolen or not working,” he said. “Now we have decided that a majority of these villages will be electrified in the conventional way.”

In India, political power and electrical power are closely linked. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which also runs the state government of Maharashtra, was elected in 2014 partly on promises to bring electricity to rural voters. It has pledged to electrify all villages by May 2018 and supply power to every citizen by 2019.

“Rural electrification is one of the most critical issues on which the elections in India are being contested,” said Sandeep Shastri, a political commentator who teaches at Jain University in Bengaluru. “People will weigh the promises of the governments — both federal and state — on the basis of implementation. Their electoral gains will be determined by the credibility of their promises.”

Shastri said rural electrification contributed to the landslide win last week of Modi’s party in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s least-developed states, where voters compared the federal government’s efforts with the lack of progress from the incumbent state government.

Power Surge

There are a lot of votes to be won. In 2014, the World Bank ranked India as home to the world’s largest unelectrified population. Power was either unaffordable, inadequate or non-existent for 240 million people, according to data from the International Energy Agency. An expanding economy and population put the country on track to be the biggest driver of global energy demand through 2040, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

But progress has been patchy. The government has met 77 percent of its target to link villages to power grids, yet has reached only about 14 percent of its target for villages earmarked for off-grid power like solar. Some 47 million rural households are still without electricity, and even those connected to the grid suffer frequent outages.

Federal renewable energy secretary Rajeev Kapoor didn’t immediately respond to calls and a text message seeking comments.

In 2012, the nation suffered one of the worst blackouts in history when the national grid collapsed, cutting power for two days to almost half the nation’s population. About one in five Indians lacked access to electricity, compared with full electrification in China, the International Energy Agency said in a 2016 report. […]

When the first solar units were installed in Bhamana in 2010, most houses got a small photovoltaic panel connected to a battery that could power a light for five to six hours. Seven years later, only four or five houses still have working lamps.

Dead Battery

“We have no clue how to fix the equipment,” said Achildar Pesra Pawra, a member of the Bhamana village council. “Some batteries stopped working within months. Others lasted for about two years. Some of the solar panels were broken.”

Part of the problem is that the factors that make solar attractive for isolated communities — ease of transport and installation — also make them easy to steal, said Shantanu Jaiswal, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

India plans to expand renewable generation capacity more than three-fold to 175 gigawatts by 2022, with the majority from solar. Almost a quarter of the total will be supplied by rooftop panels.

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