Boommi Gowda used to fear the night. Her vision fogged by glaucoma, she could not see by just the dim glow of a kerosene lamp, so she avoided going outside where king cobras slithered freely and tigers carried off neighborhood dogs.
However, things have changed at Gowda’s home in the remote southern village of Nada. A solar-powered lamp pours white light across the front of the mud-walled hut she shares with her three grown children, a puppy and a newborn calf. Now during the nighttime, she can cook, tend to her livestock and get water from a nearby well.
“I can see” Gowda said, giggling through a 100-watt smile.
In her 70 years, this is the first time she has had any kind of electricity.
Across India, thousands of homes are receiving their first light through small companies and aid programs that are bypassing the central electricity grid to deliver solar panels to the rural poor. Those customers could provide the human energy that advocates of solar power have been looking for to fuel a boom in the next decade.
With 40 percent of India’s -rural households lacking electricity and nearly a third of its 30 million agricultural water pumps running on subsidized diesel, “there is a huge market and a lot of potential,” said Santosh Kamath, executive director of consulting firm KPMG in India. “Decentralized solar installations are going to take off in a very big way and will probably be larger than the grid-connected segment.”
Next door to the Gowdas, 58-year-old Iramma, frowned as she watched her neighbors light their home for the first time. At her house, electrical wiring dangles uselessly from the walls.
She said her family would wait for the grid. They’ve already given hundreds of US dollars to an enterprising electrician who wired her house and promised service would come. They shouldn’t have to pay even more money for solar panels, she insisted.
However, her attitude softened after her 16-year-old son interrupted to complain he was struggling in school because he cannot study at night like his classmates.
“We are very much frustrated,” she said. “The children are very -anxious. They ask every day: ‘Why don’t we have power like other people?’ So if the grid doesn’t come in a month, maybe we will get solar, too.”
Despite decades of robust economic growth, there are still at least 300 million Indians — a quarter of the 1.2 billion population — who have no access to electricity at home. Some use cow dung for fuel, but they more commonly rely on kerosene, which commands premium black-market prices when government supplies run out.
They scurry during daylight to finish housework and school lessons. They wait for grid connections that often never come.
When people who live day-by-day on wage labor and what they harvest from the land choose solar, they aren’t doing it to conserve fossil fuels, stop climate change or reduce their carbon footprints. To them, solar technology presents an immediate solution to powering everything from light bulbs and heaters to water purifiers and pumps.
“Their frustration is part of our motivation. Why are we so arrogant in deciding what the poor need and when they should get it?” said Harish Hande, managing director of Selco Solar Light Pvt Ltd.
The company, which is owned by three foreign aid organizations, has fitted solar panels to 125,000 rural homes in Karnataka State, including the Gowdas,’ outside the west coast port of Mangalore.
Getting the technology to low-income customers is not easy. They need help with everything from setting up their first bank accounts and negotiating loans to navigating the fine print of payment contracts.
To find new clients, agents must go door-to-door in remote settlements, sometimes crossing rivers, hiking mountains or wading through wetlands to reach them, but the sales pitch leads to reliable profits.
Solar panels take up little space on a rooftop, the lights burn brighter than kerosene lamps and they don’t start forest fires or get snuffed out in strong winds. Unlike central power, solar units don’t get rationed or cut.
Buying solar panels is more expensive than grid electricity, but for people off the grid it compares well with other options. One of Selco’s single-panel solar systems goes for about US$360, the same or less than a year’s supply of black-market kerosene, and government subsidies mean customers actually pay less than US$300.
In two years, India’s government hopes the off-grid solar yield will quadruple to 200 megawatts, enough to power millions of rural homes with modest energy needs.
The government has also pushed for manufacturers and entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity. Its solar mission — an 11-year, US$19 billion plan of credits, consumer subsidies and industry tax breaks to encourage investment — is fast becoming a centerpiece of its wider goal for renewable sources, including wind and small-scale hydropower, to make up 20 percent of India’s supply by 2020.
Solar power alone would provide 6 percent — a huge leap, since it makes up less than 1 percent of the 17 gigawatts India gets from renewables. The federal government is leading a campaign titled “Light a billion lives” to distribute 200 million solar-powered lanterns to rural homes, while also supporting the creation of so-called “solar cities” with self-contained micro-grids in areas where supply is short.
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