Planet Venus, pictured as a black dot (at L), is seen in transit across the Sun in New Delhi on June 6, 2012.

The challenges with India’s public electricity grids last summer showed the world what happens when a country’s growth rapidly outpaces its energy delivery infrastructure and diversity of sources. When three of India’s electricity grids failed and more than half a billion people suffered two days of blackouts at the height of summer, the global media reminded us that even on the country’s best day, there is still an enormous portion of the population with no access to power. Solar energy is one way to solve this problem.

India’s Power Consumption

India and similarly developing nations are experiencing rapid commercial growth and increased competition for energy. India competes with China, Japan and South Korea for fossil fuels, and the pool from which it purchases those fuels is shrinking, especially as sanctions have curtailed the availability of Iranian oil.

In the meantime, India’s patchwork of local electricity grids has never been upgraded to support its booming population. These grids are unstable, with no real centralization for maintenance and support. Getting them up to par will be prohibitively expensive and complex.

While some people in India reacted to the July outages with calls for more coal and natural gas, it seems that the nation’s leaders see promise in renewable resources. Today, India gets only one gigawatt of power from solar energy, a mere 0.5 percent of its total power consumption according to BusinessWeek. But the country’s solar capacity is growing, and the government is encouraging state utilities to tap into that capacity by offering companies the chance to trade renewable energy credits.

A Study in the Benefits of Renewable Energy

Perhaps in a country of so many energy consumers, studying the experiences of one company can best illuminate what is possible throughout India. The Malankara Tea Plantation was once a publicly owned rubber plantation company. Today, it is an office building housed in an 86-year-old, historically significant structure. The 45 people who work there experienced frequent blackouts over the years due to the unpredictable power grid upon which it relied. When the office went dark, the Malankara Tea Plantation would switch on its diesel generator. This is how the company powered 18 tons of air conditioning, several water pumps, three packing machines, IT and networking assets, and lighting.

As the tariff cost on electricity rose and the cost of diesel fuel increased, the Malankara Tea Plantation decided to explore other options to handle its daily electricity needs, prevent blackouts and mitigate disruption to business activities. The organization took advantage of the Indian government’s incentives on solar photovoltaic installations; it used capital subsidies of 90 rupees per watt up to a maximum of 30 percent of the project cost. It installed solar arrays and charge controllers that gave the company independence from the unreliable grid and made it one of India’s first net-zero energy buildings. The organization has also reduced its annual carbon emissions by 47 tons.

A Leap from Outdated Grids to Forward-looking Renewables

The solar-powered success of the Malankara Tea Plantation has national implications.
It’s possible that India could prop up its infrastructure to avoid future blackouts of the magnitude the country experienced in the summer of 2012. However, doing so is short sighted. Even if India could shore up its grid to avoid another massive blackout, that doesn’t help the millions of its citizens and businesses who rarely or sporadically have electricity at all.

The energy opportunity in India is similar to the one the country had with communications. India could have scrambled to build the wired networks that were the norm in the West. But why do that when the nation could bypass that stage, adopt a wireless strategy, and leap beyond the capabilities of more developed nations? India has a similar chance to move ahead in the global pursuit of widespread, accessible, reliable, renewable energy – leading with solar, a resource in abundance given the country’s location and climate. India’s most recent power outages demonstrate how important it is for the country and its peers to pursue the sustainable, onsite generation of renewable energy and move away from the fossil fuels and fragile power grids that left millions in the sweltering dark this summer.

Mark Cerasuolo manages marketing at OutBack Power, a designer and manufacturer of balance-of-system components for renewable and other energy applications. Previously, he held senior marketing roles at Leviton Manufacturing, Harman International and Bose Corporation, and was active in the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).