A mini-grid in Bhamane, Karnataka state
Photo: Arianna Tozzi

Rural Electricity Consumers in India Prefer Locally-Owned Grids

Arianna Tozzi recently visited Karnataka state to gauge consumer attitudes toward centralized grid extension vs. locally-owned and managed mini-grids. The favored option: mini-grids.

In recent years, centralized grid infrastructure has been greatly extended in India. Government figures report that connectivity is now available in 99% of villages. Despite this progress, over 25 million rural households remain unelectrified while many more are served by limited and unreliable supply.

As a result of this inadequate and unreliable service, decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions such as solar mini-grids and solar home systems are being deployed at scale in remote India.

While conducting an impact assessment on two rural mini-grids in Karnataka’s Uttar Kannada district, I witnessed the many challenges posed by last-mile connectivity. The assessment was part of a wider study observing sustainability conditions for DRE systems across many dimensions: technical, economic, institutional, and socio-environmental.

The mini-grids in the villages of Viral and Bhamane were installed by Gram Oorja, a Pune-based social enterprise, in partnership with a local trust. The installations provide 24×7 power supply to each house as well as public lighting. Four LED bulbs, two sockets and a meter have also been installed in each house and the systems are designed to provide spare capacity to run small livelihood-generating appliances.

Whereas installation costs have been covered via grant funding, recurring O&M costs are covered by energy tariffs collected from each house. Both sites use a community-ownership model, where a locally elected operator and Village Energy Committee work together to ensure technical and financial management of the plant on an ongoing basis.

After many years of successfully managing the solar grid with little external help required, both communities were recently provided with a connection to the central grid. In Viral, the government-supplied lines arrived just one month before my visit, whereas Bhamane was connected over a year ago. Unfortunately, however, the lines from the central grid were damaged by severe monsoon rains, disrupting service after only a few months.

In interviews with local residents, it was clear how satisfaction and preference in both cases lay with locally managed mini-grids. There were two key reasons reported for this preference:

  1. A recurring remark from all interviewed houses was the high reliability and quality of power provided by the mini-grids compared to the central grid, with respondents finding it hard to precisely identify the number of disruptions or days without power experienced over the past month with mini-grids. Conversely, one resident in Viral said this of the central grid: “Electricity is available for 10 minutes then it may go off for an hour and comes back again for some time. It goes on like this the whole day”. Unreliable electrical supply is not uncommon with the central grid in remote India, and service that varies on a minute-per-minute basis falls short not only in promoting economic growth but also in meeting basic energy needs for households and public spaces.
  2. Residents also preferred the benefits of a locally managed service as compared to one perceived as distant and unaccountable. In the case of Bhamane, where the central grid only worked for a few months, community members were very surprised to see that no one had visited the village for over six months to check on the status of the grid line. Local accountability for the electricity supply seemed to be an additional decisive factor determining user’s choices and preferences.

Surprisingly, the economic reason of a free/cheaper electricity supply as promised by the government (under Saubhagya, a new policy aimed at “ensuring last mile connectivity and electricity connections to all unelectrified households in the country” by March 2019) did not emerge as a determining factor for choosing one source as compared to another.

Overall, it seemed that the experience with solar mini-grids had set a positive baseline for reliability and accountability, factors that may have played a determining role in the low satisfaction registered towards the central grid. This finding is in line with that from other studies; where user satisfaction and preferences were found to be subjective and contingent to pre-existing expectations and past experiences with electricity services.

Certainly, the focus on household (not just village), connectivity proposed by the Saubhagya scheme offers a more inclusive solution for universal electrification. However, modern, reliable and durable supply should be basic requirements for the energy service to be truly meaningful in the long run.

Additionally, a move to recognize the already existing DRE infrastructure implemented by various players in rural areas could be a meaningful step to avoid replicating efforts in places where a reliable and adequate service already exists.

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