The Grid is Coming? The Grid is Going!

In India, it is presumed that the grid is a better source of electricity; those locations least likely to get grid electricity are prioritized for solar deployment.

Solar for rural electrification is often criticized as a “light only” solution for battery charging, an occasional fan or TV. When demand extends to refrigerators, air conditioning, laptops, tablets, Internet, electric cooking, and more, is the grid necessary? 

The Dharnai village in Bihar was made famous (or infamous by shining a light on poverty and poor policy) by a 100-kW microgrid installed by Greenpeace in July 2014. One might expect the villagers to be grateful, even overjoyed to have at least some electricity. Yet the young protested: “We want “real” electricity, not this fake one.” I sympathize with this reaction.

The U.S. perceives solar as a high-tech, cutting edge, environmentally responsible solution for the well-off, a substitute and a complement to the fully functional grid.

In contrast, solar in the emerging markets appears as the country cousin of the grid, represented by images of huts or ill-constructed brick buildings in Africa or solar panels with a line up of natives (in costumes!) in front of them in India. Solar systems are perceived as, in Indian jargon, a “stop-gap arrangement,” and therefore second class.

My Moment of Memorable Disquiet

As an 18 year-old engineering student, I traveled on a bus in Mumbai. The route passed through Peddar Road, an affluent area. At one of the stops, a twelve-year-old boy got in, carrying several VHS movies. This was a time when VCRs were unavailable in India. The country considered all consumer electronics luxuries. 

At home, I had a black and white TV, and little else as electronics entertainment, yet this child had access to the latest technology. I did not care about VCRs and movies, but was puzzled: Why shouldn’t I have the same access to movies as this boy? The inequity and injustice of my lack in access bothered me.

This event is relevant to today’s energy inequity. In the mid-1980s, only about 30 percent of India had electricity (now it is at 65 percent); both the boy and I were privileged to have electricity at all.

The ~1.3 billion without electricity may ask: If some people have grid power, why shouldn’t I?

Solar home system (SHS) owners likely do not need all electric appliances immediately, but since they are denied access to fully capable systems, it makes them look askance at SHS offers. Is there condescension toward lesser citizens here?

If SHS in its full development and trajectory — through microgrids, say — were equally or more capable than what the grid delivers, there would be no grid envy.

Common Aspirations Worldwide

It is discriminatory to have rooftop solar for poor rural homes, and grid electricity for urban residents. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. In having access to phones, we are equal, though phone models and affordability may vary. In other words, electricity must be a phone-like, egalitarian solution.

Today, a gap exists between SHS and the grid, which presents a challenge. Microgrids need to address the full gamut of electricity services, and develop them as the best solution for today — for urban and rural areas, merging and developed markets, the rich and poor.

Grid Envy

Positioning matters. Electricity from microgrids ought not be marketed as a utility, commodity, or cost saving method, nor as a means for rural electrification, but rather as supporting an environmentally aware lifestyle. If microgrid demos show fully functional homes with refrigerators, TVs, tablets, laptops, washing machines, microwave ovens, and induction cookers, why would anyone wish for the grid?

With sophisticated microgrids comprising diverse, renewable generation sources and built in demand management, the traditional utilities have much to fear from microgrids, not the opposite.

I expect entrepreneurs supported by venture investors will fill the gap between SHS and the grid. This high tech R & D will be funded for the opportunity microgrids represent in developed markets. The rural customers in emerging markets may be incidental beneficiaries. The efforts of NGOs, the UN and the World Bank with the SE4ALL program, and development economists contribute by inducing a draft to help this along. 

Lead image: Transmission lines via Shutterstock

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Mahesh P. Bhave is Professor, NTPC School of Business (NSB), New Delhi area, He is also Founder, BHAVE Power Systems, San Diego, CA.  He teaches "Corporate Strategy - Energy-centric" and "Business Strategies for Microgrids" for MBA and executive MBA students. He works on projects to replace LPG (liquified petroleum gas) for cooking with solar and battery based solutions. Until December 2016, he was visiting professor, strategy, IIM Kozhikode, India.  Mahesh is an engineer from IIT Delhi with a Ph.D. from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He may be reached at . He is the author of  The Microgrid Revolution: Business Strategies for Next Generation Electricity , 2016, Praeger.  

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