India, like sub-Saharan Africa, has hundreds of millions of people who live without access to reliable electricity. Most of their power comes from burning kerosene, wood, coal, and cow manure — sources that create serious pollution, especially when used indoors.

Power from local grids is often cut off unexpectedly. That leads to serious problems for the healthcare community. Having no electricity means there is no refrigeration to store vaccines and drugs, or to make ice for cooling humans and storing food. There is not enough light for safe childbirth and no way to charge cell phones — a critical lifeline in rural areas during emergencies — or to run fans and water pumps.

Solar powered mIcro-grid could bring electric power to millions of people in India

“This takes a huge toll on people’s health, not to mention on the nation’s economy and air quality,” says Matt Baker, an environment program officer in the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. “Solar energy can deliver power without harming the air or the global climate — and with power, people’s quality of life and economic opportunities improve dramatically.”

“We need to see the change on the ground,” says Anjali Jaiswal, senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s India initiative. “We need to see clean energy taking off, both for the future — for light for kids trying to read — and to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, which are going to be profoundly felt in India. In fact, they already are.”  The highest temperature ever recorded in India is 124 degrees F. That happened just a few weeks ago on May 19 in a small town in northwest India.

Four US foundations recently announced an initiative to bring reliable off-grid or micro-grid power — fueled by solar energy — to people in India who are without it today. They include the Hewlett Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Grantham Environmental Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation. The four have pledged $30 million to fund the program. The government of India will match that amount.

“These technologies are really transformative in many, many ways,” said Justin Guay, climate program officer at the Packard Foundation. “First and foremost, they bring people basic but life-changing energy services in a matter of days, not the years or decades it would take for the grid to arrive.”

The new technologies also drive financial inclusion. “These are assets that require finance, and for those who are considered ‘unbanked,’ this is the first time they have ever opened a bank account, or taken out a loan,” Guay said. “This creates incredibly important history for the next time they want or need a loan. Imagine trying to get a home loan if you didn’t have credit history — it just wouldn’t happen.”

The willingness of these foundations to put forth their money,”changes the risk profile of a project, making it much more bankable,” says Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It will make it more attractive for private money to flow in. It’s a very important blueprint that shows an innovative way of making a little money go a long way. You can imagine many, many initiatives of this type blossoming around the world.”

Carl Pope, former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club, believes the fastest way for India — as well as other Asian and African countries — to achieve universal electrification is to encourage investments in distributed, renewable energy. This would primarily involve rooftop solar panels or microgrid installations. It can also include “micro-hydro, mini-wind and biomass [which] also have niche roles,” he says.

When (or if) the centralized grid arrives, it will benefit from local generation, “because the 21st century grid will be multi-source and multi-directional, not one way from a small number of big power plants,” Pope says. “Much distributed solar will be developed in places where the spasmodic grid of much of the world has already arrived, so people can have reliable power, and higher quality power than the grid offers.”

Off-grid solar has the potential to grow quickly, says Vrinda Manglik, campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s international climate and energy program. “We’ve seen solar scale very rapidly in the United States, and the price of solar globally has fallen rapidly as well.

“This is unprecedented,” she adds. “No other country has tried to do what India is trying to do — build a clean energy economy and bring millions of people out of poverty. It’s not going to be easy. But these new initiatives are a step in the right direction to achieve these goals.’’