I was never more acutely aware of the value of electricity than I was during the year I spent living in India. I should be more specific: I was never more acutely aware of the value of electricity than I was on those nights when my wife and I were staying at a cheap little guest house in Delhi at the height of the swampy monsoon heat, lying in bed on the verge of sleep, when a sudden sci-fi sound of motors winding down en masse indicated that the hotel had been hit by one of the city’s routine rolling blackouts. There went the A/C we’d paid extra for.
Delhi’s grid couldn’t handle the full demand for power on its hottest days, and so the grid’s managers would shed loads neighborhood to neighborhood to keep the system (barely) humming. We’d heard that the poshest districts were never part of the roll; the backpacker ghetto of Paharganj near the railway station was definitely not one of those.
Like many establishments, our little guest house had a contingency plan: a single small diesel generator, which someone started up a few minutes after the rolling blackout hit. It wasn’t strong enough to run the A/C, but it would spin the ceiling fans, which did their best to dissipate the stench of diesel smoke from all the generators fired up at establishments the length of the bazaar. The way you tried to fall asleep once the A/C went off was you stood in the shower, soaked yourself with cold water, lay down in bed dripping under the ceiling fan, and hoped you nodded off before all the water condensed away and let the ferocious heat back in. If you didn’t, that was when you truly understood the value of reliable electricity.
This is worth bearing in mind as we contemplate the blackout of this young century, maybe the greatest of all time: the wholesale power failure that plunged Indians by the hundreds of millions into darkness, shut down air conditioners, induced traffic chaos and halted trains nationwide. (For the best single-link analysis of the blackout and what it means, Jonathan Shainin has you covered over at the New Yorker.) It’s 90 degrees, hazy and thick with humidity in the late evening in Delhi as I write this, and I feel terrible for anyone stuck there still stuck without access to electrically powered cooling technology.
The world press took alarmed notice at those rendered powerless by the blackout, noting breathlessly that 600 million Indians – nearly a tenth of the world’s people – were without power. As electricity service is restored, the media spotlight is already shifting elsewhere, and India will carry on as a country where several hundred million people (I’ve seen figures ranging from 300 million to 450 million) live in homes with no electricity. Ever.
Which brings us to the enormous cleantech opportunity lurking in the shadows of India’s shaky grid. It’s one akin to what just happened to Indian telecommunications. When I was living in India in 1999, we heard many stories of multiyear waits for new landlines, which are zealously controlled by the monument to stasis that is India’s state-owned telephone company. Mobile phones were nonexistent. For the vast majority of Indians, telecom was a rare and complicated affair that occurred only on public-access phones at retail kiosks. (I can report that in those days you would overhear the most extraordinary things being bellowed down creaky old telephone wires as you passed by.)
And today, barely a decade later? There are more than 900 million mobile phone accounts in India, and there’s a whole electricity-biz sideline in providing recharging services to the millions of Indians who have mobile phones but no power outlets. India basically skipped twentieth-century telecom.
While India’s grid was down, it was distributed power generation – little diesel generators like the one my old guest house had, as well as the huge generators that Indian businesses routinely include in their office and factory designs – that kept the country from grinding completely to a halt. Gigaom reports that Indian companies pay more than $0.45 per kilowatt hour for that emergency power, more than four times the standard rate.
The conventional wisdom – as expressed over at The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, among other places – is that only coal can possibly fill that gap. I’d suggest, however, that when power’s going for rates similar to the steepest of the world’s feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, we’re looking at the world’s most underserved solar market.
This is already well-understood in some corners of India. Reuters reported this week on an entire village powered by solar, and in my forthcoming book "The Leap" (already out in Canada), I describe similar village-scale efforts by the pioneers at a brilliant Indian solar business called SELCO, which uses microcredit loans to finance small solar arrays for village rooftops and market stalls. Piggybacking on these entrepreneurial efforts, the Indian government has committed to becoming a global solar powerhouse within a decade through its Jawarhalal Nehru National Solar Mission.
And here’s another factor to consider: the Indian government is notoriously slow, sloppy and graft-ridden, especially when it comes to great big top-down megaprojects – a national grid upgrade, for example, capable of bringing hundreds of gigawatts of new coal power online. This is the landline version of India’s energy future. Distributed, small-scale solar energy, on the other hand, looks a lot like a nation that’s only ever known mobile phones. Imagine a kiosk recharging mobile phones for a few rupees a pop in a rural village, its awning capped in solar panels and the sky above unblocked by overhead wires of any sort. That would be a bright future indeed – for India and beyond.