In Central India, far from the grid of power lines, telephone poles and power transformers an electrical experiment has been taking place. For the last year, the village of Meerwada has been learning to live with solar energy. Located some 90 minutes from the nearest city by way of a rocky 4×4 dirt road, this small town sits on the cutting edge of a modern-day industrial revolution.
In December 2011, sixty-three homes surrounding Meerwada’s community center were connected to a small solar-panel microgrid that was established by the California-based company SunEdison. The pilot program (later officially named The Eradication of Darkness Plan), selected Meerwada to determine whether small rural villages, such as those found in India’s Guna District, could actually benefit from solar energy. Equally important says Dawn Brister, who serves as SunEdison’s senior manager of marketing communications, was whether the residents would be comfortable with this new change, and what they personally would want to see from the project.
(The) mistake we feel a lot of companies have made when they are trying to take electricity in (to communities) is they don’t take into account how the residents are going to receive it.”
“So we wanted to make sure that the villagers were receptive to it and understood what it could do for them.”
After hearing what the villagers thought of the idea, the engineers then developed a plan that would address the needs of the citizens. The community members were consulted throughout the process to ensure the project would meet their needs. For example, the community center received lighting in and outside the building to allow for comfortable settings for meetings; the privately owned water pump was converted to electrical power from diesel, and a system was set up for other community members to pay for use of the well (rather than walking two miles a day for water); and outside lighting was implemented in areas to allow residents to walk lighted paths and to safely manage livestock after dark.
For much of India, access to electrical power is nothing new. The experience of turning on a lamp to read or cook by at night can be taken for granted as part of 21st century technology.
Solar energy microgrids in Central India
But for some 400 million people in India, electrical power does not exist and has never existed in their homes. Living by the light of day has been a way of life for 28 other villages near Meerwada, where their physical distance from conventional power lines has kept the communities reliant on diesel generators and kerosene lamps.
Meerwada’s success in converting to solar power may change that, says Brister.
“The solar makes perfect sense because of the solar radiance and the meteorological conditions not to mention that they don’t have the grid infrastructure that we have to add to traditional power sources.” The answer, she said, was what was called distributed generation which generates and distributes electricity based on a microgrid, such as the solar power system centralized in Meerwada.
“(A) lot of the people who are without electricity right now are never going to be touched by grid because of the sheer expense and engineering effort that would be required to bring traditional transmission lines out to them,” Brister explains.
The Solar India project
SunEdison has been working to implement solar energy in India since 2010, when the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, announced the government’s Solar India project with the bold target of 20,000 MW by 2022, with 3,000 MW by 2017.
Recent studies have shown that economic viability in small communities can be tied directly to the quality of one’s living conditions. Improved access to electricity, water and sanitation can have a large impact on residents’ earning capacity, which in turn can play a role in the economic health of a community. It is for this reason that organizations like Water.org and other nonprofits see improved infrastructure and access to water and electricity as essential components in combating poverty in developing nations.
And it’s why SunEdison believes that equipping 29 small communities in Central India with sustainable electricity options will have an impact on India’s own economic wellbeing. Improving the living conditions in small rural communities, Brister says, goes “hand in hand” with improving India’s economic potential as a nation.
“For India to be a good business opportunity, it needs to continue to grow economically. Their economy needs to expand, and for their economy to expand, that needs to include all the people in the country. It can’t be just the cities. So (SunEdison has) always seen it as a hand-in-hand effort,” Brister says. “We want to improve peoples’ quality of life, but we also want to improve their ability to have economic opportunity that is not available to them right now.”
Solar power’s potential in rural India
For many of SunEdison’s staff however, bringing solar power to Meerwada’s 400 residents was a more personal endeavor.
The people who oversaw the project, says Brister, “could tell you a lot about our technical innovation capability, a lot about our go-to-market strategy, a lot about our product set and our differentiation in the market, but if you ask them why they come to work every day, it’s about helping people get electricity.
“Almost everyone on the executive staff has, at some point, been in contact with the people of Meerwada and have seen firsthand what unfettered joy it brings to their life to just be able to turn a light bulb on,” she says, in a village and a geographic area far away from the grid that powers India’s largest cities.
And that, Brister points out, is solar energy’s greatest asset.