05/22/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

Starved for Power, New Indian Government Translates 'Chicken in Every Pot' Into 'Solar on Every Roof'

Energy poverty is one of the world's greatest challenges. There are billions of people without access to reliable and reasonably priced electricity. In India, alone, there are some 400 million people in energy poverty.  The new Indian government has set a major initiative to change this situation radically and rapidly: "to harness solar power to enable every home to run at least one light bulb by 2019."

"We look upon solar as having the potential to completely transform the way we look at the energy space," said Narendra Taneja, convener of the energy division at Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party

This has the potential to change radically the situation throughout India. Access to even a few hours of light, for example, has had a major impact on the status of women as the lighting enables children to do their homework. A few hours of the lighting will equate to adding years of education to the poorest of Indians.

And, this is a very cost-effective option. A solar lighting system costs in the range of 1-2 months of kerosene for an indoor lamp. Just on fuel costs, perhaps a 400 percent return in the first year -- freeing up money for other things (whether food, education, or ...) -- along with reduced pollution (both indoor for health and larger scale climate / other impacts).

For a moment, consider the fiscal costs. Remembering that the Rupee-Dollar conversion is roughly 60-1,

if you have a Direct Current bulb, such as an LED, you can get a light running for a total cost of Rs. 300 for the panel, and Rs. 400 or so for the bulb. There are AC-DC fans also which can be plugged into a solar panel, or run off the mains. These go for about Rs. 4,200.

Thus, for roughly $US12, one could get a solar light system. Let's put this at $20 for a "packaged" system. Assuming four people per household, there would be a total of 100 million packages required. Doubling the price for soft (deployment, publicity, inspections, procurement, corruption ...) costs, an investment of roughly $4 billion over the next five years would reach the target of provided 100% of Indians (at least) limited lighting as a step toward reducing (ending...) energy poverty.

Remembering that this is a political initiative, what might the political return on investment be for this $4 billion?

It"s hard to imagine politicians not understanding the appeal of bringing power to the people: every time they turn on the lights voters will be reminded of the BJP.

BJP political operatives should be salivating at the prospects of having such a valuable political tool paid for out of government resources.

Moving past the political "market," the international energy markets are already assessing the implications. India's electricity system is cumbersome, inefficient, and heavily dependent on coal imports. If the new government follows through on its promise, with renewable energy a cornerstone of its energy policy, expectations of increased coal exports might turn into a chimera.  As discussed at RENewEconomy, there are prospects that this program could be a leading wedge to dramatic changes to coal's place in India's energy future.

For a relatively small cost, the new Indian government could take a huge leap forward in addressing energy poverty. That leap could provide a path forward to a radical change in India's energy future from carbon-heavy to carbon-light energy production.

For the BJP's political future and India's poor, "Chicken in Every Pot" has been transformed into "Solar on Every Rooftop."

Photo credit: From Engineering for Change on Flickr.