Rural power solutions even other States can emulate
NEWS As a recent ruling by Rajasthan’s power regulator implies, enabling energy access must go beyond powering rural homes.
- Over the past decade, India has made great strides in expanding energy access in rural areas.
- As per the credible estimates, there was a near doubling of electrified rural households, from 55% in 2010 to 96% in 2020.
- The increase in the credible estimates are based on the measure of access to power supply, which takes into account the number of households that have been connected to the electricity grid.
- But this method of measure discounts large areas of essential and productive human activities such as public schools and primary health centres.
- Also despite greater electrification, power supply is often unreliable in rural areas.
- Recently Rajasthan’s power regulator gave the ruling which points towards this yawning gap.
- The regulating authority also suggested solutions that other States could emulate. The Rajasthan Electricity Regulatory Commission (RERC) has ordered:
- The State’s power distribution companies, or discoms to solarise unelectrified public schools.
- This has the potential to electrify about 1,500 government-run schools in the remote parts of the State with roof-top solar panels and generate about 15 megawatts (MW) of power.
- It has also suggested installation of batteries to ensure storage of power.
- The RERC order also directs Rajasthan’s cash-strapped discoms to seek corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds for the solarising drive and allows schools ownership of the power systems in a phased manner.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE RULING
- Apart from enabling education, this ruling would benefit several other crucial aspects of rural life.
- Other than imparting education government schools serve as public spaces in rural areas:
- In the past they have housed villagers from extreme weather such as storms and floods, and have been turned into polling centres during election season.
- Also they have played a crucial role during COVID pandemic by acting as a COVID-19 care centre.
- Battery storage of power will ensure that schools will cater to children’s after-school activities.
- Also, schools could also extend power supply to mid-day meal kitchens, toilets, and motorised water pumps and not limit it to powering fans and lights in classrooms.
- Another ruling of the RERC to use the CSR funding will remove the burden of infrastructure development expenses on discoms, while also ensuring clean energy for the schools.
- The power that is generated could also be counted towards the discoms Renewable Purchase Obligations (RPO).
- RPO is the proportion of power that distribution companies must procure from renewable sources. This ratio is a gradual annual progression to encourage greater use of renewable energy and to provide for a phased manner to reduce dependence on climate warming fossil fuels.
BENEFITS OF THE RULING FOR RAJASTHAN
Achieving the targets:
- In 2019, Rajasthan set itself an ambitious target of producing 30 GW of solar energy by 2025.
- It currently has an installed capacity of about 5 GW, most of which are from large-scale utility plants, or solar parks with ground-mounted panels.
- The State must install at least 7 GW every year for the next four years to achieve this target. Hence, the ruling will help the state to take the steps in this direction.
- While Rajasthan is India’s largest State in terms of land mass with vast, sparsely populated tracts available to install solar parks, bulk infrastructure of this scale is susceptible to extreme weather events.
- With climate change increasing the possibility of such events, a decentralised model of power generation would prove to be more climate resilient.
Encourage solar power usages:
- Taking a cue from the RERC ruling, a greater number of public buildings could be used to install roof-top solar panels.
- Buildings such as primary health centres, panchayat offices, railway stations and bus stops could easily be transitioned to utilising clean energy.
- With battery storage, the susceptibility of grid infrastructure to extreme weather events could be mitigated. This is called climate proofing.
Boosting rural electrification:
- Large-scale projects are generally financed by companies that wish to profit from economies of scale, making investments in rural electricity less lucrative.
- Hence, large-grid based projects add to the supply of power in urban areas, and therefore, only marginally further greater energy access goals.
- As solar installations become inexpensive and with rapidly advancing battery storage technologies, decentralised solar power generation has become a reality.
- And a State such as Rajasthan, which is most exposed to solar irradiation, could set an example by making its urban and rural centres, power generators, consumers, and suppliers in the same breath.
Aligned with national goal:
- The government has an ambitious plan to catapult the State into being a power “exporter”.
- The recent ruling will help in achievement of this national goal without destroying the environment.
- One of the hurdles to holistic, climate resilient, clean energy access is the lack of convergence between government departments.
- Rajasthan, for instance, the discoms could work with the State’s Education Department to determine the schools that require electrification, and their expected demand and infrastructure expenses.
- They could then liaise with the CSR arms of companies to generate funding, and with industry to produce cost-effective solar photovoltaic panels and batteries.
Sustaining these new power systems would require some unlearning and relearning, but it is not unimaginable.
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