UNEP Bringing Solar Power Into India's Rural Mainstream

For many people living in rural areas in India, clean or renewable energy is something seen as unaffordable and out-of-reach in practical terms — but for the last few years, a project piloted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is attempting to change that perception by bringing solar power into the rural mainstream in India through micro-financing. The project has already reached approximately 100,000 people in the state of Karnataka — saving money in the long-term and transforming the quality of life for many — even if it is just to provide a few extra hours of uninterrupted lighting at night.

Consistent and affordable access to clean energy sources is a big issue in India, especially in rural areas. Local electricity grids are often unreliable, overstressed and at the mercy of sometimes extreme weather conditions (think monsoons, landslides and the like), leading to prolonged power outages (sometimes on a daily basis) or scheduled power cuts to ease the infrastructural burden (sometimes also daily). In total, only an estimated 45 percent of the Indian population is connected to the power grid — leaving the rest of the population on their own and in the dark, energy-wise.To meet their energy needs, India's poor have turned to so-called "dirty" sources of energy — whether it's kerosene or the household stove — all great contributors to carbon emissions. Many walk long distances to buy kerosene, which is relatively costly.

The UNEP estimates that a single wick of kerosene for indoor lighting can burn up to 80 litres (21 gallons) of fuel, emitting more than 250 kilograms (551 pounds) of carbon dioxide per year. Not to mention the fact that in developing countries, 64 percent of deaths and 81 percent of lifelong disabilities in children younger than five years is directly attributed to the use of these inefficient and "dirty" fuels.

It is no surprise then, that the UNEP's $1.5 million Solar Home Project to distribute solar photovoltaic (PV) kits is such a success. Currently, the greatest obstacle to solar power from getting a foothold in this market has been mostly due to a lack of financing for clean energy in rural communities. However, by initially teaming up with two large Indian banks, the kits were made affordable through low-interest loans of $300-500, to be repaid over five years. In addition to the loans, the banks organized a vendor qualification process that resulted in five solar vendors offering their services competitively and giving customers more flexibility to choose.

"Lack of access to affordable energy produces one of poverty's most powerful grips," says Eric Usher, director of UNEP's Renewable Energy and Finance Unit. "This project empowers people to invest and helps free them from reliance on government interventions."

The project's success has led to similar, sister initiatives springing up Algeria, China, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, and Mexico, with hopes that this model will continue to empower impoverished communities and bring the idea and use of renewable energy into the mainstream.
::United Nations Environment Program
Via::World Watch Institute

See also ::Solar LEDs Brighten Rural India's Future, ::India Considering Off-Grid Renewable Options for Rural Electrication

Image from: NOAA

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