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Susmita Bhattacharjee, Managing Director and Founder, Pushan Renewable Energy Pvt. Ltd

15 May 2014

Off-grid renewable energy is still a nascent concept in India. Susmita Bhattacharjee, Managing Director and Founder of Pushan Renewable Energy Pvt. Ltd talks to Ankita Sharma about where we stand in providing such solutions to people in rural areas. Excerpts.

What is the off-grid renewable energy scenario in India like?

The Indian government’s solar policy is heavily geared towards centralized megawatt scale solar power plants. Next level plans are being discussed about rooftop projects where power will be sold to the grid on the lines of German solar installations. At present, off-grid renewable energy has a position of a side project in Central and state government’s policies. India has a huge potential for off-grid solar energy because of abundant sunshine, power shortages, increasing power demand and poor grid infrastructure. Off-grid solutions are not growing because of lack of support from the Central and state government, initial high cost compared to available alternatives and lack of awareness.

What in your view is the way forward for the off-grid space in India? What are the steps needed?

We need active promotion and support from the government, both Central and state, in terms of policies, process and subsidy. The government should stop providing free or heavily subsidized electricity and kerosene. That fund can be shifted towards subsidy for solar and the off-grid solar power system with energy storage (battery) should become one of the key elements in India’s energy mix and should be incentivised through policies.

What kind of support is needed from the government?

The government should focus on making the process easy. It should let the market take its own course. As the market develops, and subsidy on kerosene and electricity reduces, solar will not need subsidy in the future. Two of the areas for attention are: off-grid solar policy where process of subsidy is easy for consumers and the process of credit facility through bank loan should be made easy. At present MNRE policies have made the market closed. Only large players can operate. There is no encouragement for new and small scale enterprises. MNRE should develop specifications for individual components as well as total solar power system. The manufacturers should supply as per the specifications. MNRE can develop a monitoring mechanism for maintaining the quality standards. Any integrator or service provider should be able to supply systems as per the specification and the customer should be eligible to get the subsidy. Right now the subsidy is available only if you buy from a certain manufacturer, for example Nabard list and channel partner list of MNRE. These lists have some advantages. MNRE has to deal with limited number of organizations but at the same time it does not provide systems as per the requirement of the customers / users. Some of the actions needed from the government are: ?? Nabard capital subsidy scheme should be expanded up to 5 kw systems (water pumping and solar power pack with battery storage). ?? A customer should get the subsidy when she / he buys a system where all components are within MNRE specification irrespective of whether bank loan is taken or not. ?? Government should provide clear guidelines to banks regarding solar financing. Small enterprises should have the opportunity to be listed with MNRE and state nodal agency. That should not be against a heavy charge and grading process. The market should rank a particular supplier/ service provider not a rating agency who is paid to grade.

Which are the projects that you are working on?

We bring solar power to people’s doorstep in remote rural areas of Madhya Pradesh and provide integrated solutions while at the same time we raise awareness, provide supplies, transportation facilities, on-site installation, after care service and support with bank financing. At the moment we are providing solar home lighting systems to a remote un-electrified village in Alirajpur district of tehsil Bhabra in Madhya Pradesh. The local regional rural bank -- Narmada Jhabua Gramin Bank -- is our partner for solar financing. We met community members several times and were successful in convincing families to adopt solar appliances. We are very happy that 25 homes now have electricity for the first time ever. For un-electrified houses we have provided systems that are affordable and bank installments match our customers’ cash flow. The solar units come with 2 CFL lights and a mobile charger. We believe that when people make an informed decision and pay for the system, they value it and take care of it. We will provide timely after sales service and continue to educate the beneficiaries on how to use the system properly. People within the community are very happy and already want one or two extra lights for their homes. We provided the solar home lighting system under Nabard solar scheme. There are set specifications for different models and room for customizing is limited. This is where I think the government’s solar policy should be more flexible towards customers’ needs.

Can off-grid solutions also improve the livelihood of villagers?

Yes they can. Our goal is to empower people, particularly women through sustainable energy solutions. We look for women entrepreneurs who could earn an income by using off-grid solar power. In Jhabua, Kadaknath chicken is a specialty. The chicks need light during the growth period. We are installing solar lighting system at small Kadaknath poultry farms run by women. An entrepreneur is running a photocopy and e-mail facility through solar power in Jhabua district. Before moving to solar, he was using kerosene generator. Availability of kerosene was becoming very difficult and people in the shop were constantly inhaling the fumes and soot. We continue to promote solar to those entrepreneurs, who could improve their income by the use of off-grid solar power. People need larger systems 1-5 kw for business as well as homes. We have installed a 2 kw system for a large house. The family is very happy with the system. However, the customer could not get the subsidy because his system is larger than the systems listed on Nabard subsidy scheme. Bank financing, however, could be arranged. We can motivate many people like him to adopt solar if bank financing and subsidy is available easily. Our dream is to create an ecosystem where every household in India generates a part of their required energy through off-grid solar and thus together we attain energy self-sufficiency.