More than 237 million people in India are without electricity and many millions are without hot water. But how can such complex issues be addressed in a way that brings prosperity to local communities and their surrounding environments, while enabling future development?

Harnessing the Power of the Indian Sun

A significant proportion of the Indian population remains underserved in terms of access to energy and many other services, despite rapid national development. Even households that are connected to the grid suffer regular blackouts due to severe shortage of supply. Natural Capital Partners’ Global Markets Manager, Christiaan Vrolijk, visited two solar projects in India which are taking very different approaches to the challenge.

Solar energy provides affordable, reliable, renewable sources of light and water heating, which can extend the hours of activity for families, enhancing business productivity and allowing children to study. Importantly, it reduces energy costs for users since it is a freely available resource. With approximately 22% of the country’s population living below the poverty line, this can make a significant difference to household income and savings.

The two solar projects in Karnataka state each have significant positive impacts on local people by providing them with a renewable source of power. Both projects are supported by our clients with carbon finance, both projects support multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and both are expanding. Yet, the two projects’ operational models are quite different.

The first, SELCO Solar Energy Access, targets the country’s rural poor with a joint initiative from social enterprise SELCO and Natural Capital Partners. It delivers emissions reductions by displacing fossil fuel based energy sources such as kerosene lamps with solar lighting, which are distributed primarily to households at the bottom of the pyramid along with solar water heating and photovoltaic systems (PV). These energy solutions are customised for each household, school or business, and also provide financing support to enable lower income families, who often cannot access finance through banks, to participate.

This joint project, which was established with support from Microsoft, has already improved energy access for more than 30,000 households in just three years,” commented Christiaan. “This was my third visit to the project, and again it was a joy to see the impact it is having on local people.”

The project has a few different components. As an example, the “Light for Education” programme supports Sustainable Goal 4 for Quality Education by distributing solar lamps to students to enable evening study at home, with charging stations based at the school to encourage the students’ attendance.

In addition, existing social infrastructure is used to spread awareness of the solar products and the opportunities they bring to households. Women’s self-help groups, which regularly meet to discuss improvements to their villages, are used as key distribution channels. Peer-to-peer marketing has proved successful in enhancing uptake of the solar products and supports Sustainable Development Goal 5, Gender Equality, by empowering women to help their own communities.

The second project Christiaan visited in the same state focuses on distributing solar water heaters to urban households and small businesses, as well as institutions such as schools and hospitals in towns and cities across India.

In the region of Karnataka, 20-30% of those with grid-connected electricity use it to heat water. In this project, a solar water heater manufacturer installs solar heaters on rooftops to deliver an in-house hot water supply for families, displacing carbon-intensive grid electricity. Some 80,000 solar water heaters have been distributed and installed under this programme and more than 120,000 tonnes CO2 are reduced per year. Not only does an onsite solar hot water tank save electricity costs, but it ensures that hot water is available on demand, which is important in an area where both scheduled and unscheduled power cuts are common throughout the day.

It is the 25th anniversary of the solar water heater manufacturer and the company is making good progress with this project,” said Christiaan. The project employs approximately 160 people directly in manufacturing, distribution, installation and maintenance roles, and there are many additional roles created for distributors and retailers. The project developer is also conducting awareness programmes in schools and at public events to help increase uptake of its solar products.

Going onsite is always a great experience and an eye-opener. All the households we visited were very happy with their solar water heater installations, but you also encounter some of the challenges faced by the project. Street naming and house numbering is not always logical and needs local knowledge from the distributor in order to track the installations, which is critical for the monitoring and verification of the project. Our partners are now further improving the efficiency of the project with a mobile app they are testing for roll-out, which automatically records the GPS location as well as the address.”

Christiaan finally commented: “Access to energy gives people in India access to so much more. These two projects successfully address similar issues from different angles – one of them by providing tailored solar solutions to rural communities, which is expanding via local networks. And another by installing commercially-produced solar water heaters on rooftops in urban areas. We will continue working with our project partners and our clients to harness the power of the sun and bring energy to families and businesses across the country.”