A forested village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid… In 2018, it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the national power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.
In 2016, before the national grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network. The power generated by the plant is expensive (though it costs less than villagers often pay for alternatives such as kerosene for lighting and diesel for irrigation pumps). The worry is that demand for electricity may not be enough to justify the installation cost. …But Mlinda and other mini-grid installers see them as more than a way to satisfy existing demand for electricity: they are a way to catalyse development. The installers advise villagers on irrigation, farming and marketing to help them develop businesses that require reliable electricity, which in turn justifies the expense of installation.
Vijay Bhaskar of Mlinda says a big mistake in development has been to assume that, once people are hooked up to electricity, businesses will automatically flourish. People have to be taught how to make the most of power, he says. “Bringing energy is the easy part. The hard part is finding productive ways to make use of it.” According to one British expert, “mini-grid operators are not sellers of kilowatt-hours; they are stimulators of rural development.” Jaideep Mukherjee, the boss of Smart Power India, an NGO supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, says their job is to “demonstrate the benefits, train and then propagate”.
An independent study for Mlinda found that GDP per person in eight villages with mini-grids rose by 10.6% on average over the first 13 months, compared with 4.6% in a group of similar villages without them. Mini-grids are being set up at the rate of just 100 or so a year, from Myanmar to Mozambique. But the International Energy Agency (IEA), a forecaster, says hundreds of thousands of them could connect 440m people by 2030, with the right policies and about $300bn of investment.
African countries used to focus almost exclusively on expanding national electricity networks. Now some, including Nigeria and Togo, have started to prioritise mini-grids. ..
Most mini-grids are green, unlike diesel, kerosene and coal- and gas-fired electricity. That is a welcome feature, though not the main aim, since the contribution of places like Narotoli to global warming is minuscule.
Excerpts from Mini-girds and development: Empowering Villages, Economist, July 14, 2018, at 61