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The UPA government had launched an ambitious solar mission as part of the national action plan on climate change. This was to establish 20,000 megawatts (MW) of capacity by 2022, up from the present level of around 3,000MW. The low-carbon growth roadmap prepared by an expert group set up by the erstwhile Planning Commission had recommended a capacity of some 100,000MW by the year 2030. The Narendra Modi government has just revised these numbers and announced a goal of 100,000MW by 2022 itself. This will be a global watershed actually. This would not only help moderate the growth of our carbon dioxide emissions but will also yield substantial “co-benefits" (like improved public health, “green" jobs, etc).

But chasing gigawatts (1,000MW equals one GW) alone is not enough and will not be sufficient for true energy transformation. What is required is a simultaneous push to ensure decentralized generation and distribution as well so that local communities who do not have access to electricity now get power in their homes. This is particularly true for those areas which are remote from conventional grids and to which grid connectivity will either be expensive or difficult.

At least a fifth of India’s 600,000 villages will fall into this category and these should be the first candidates for decentralized generation and distribution solutions based on solar energy.

While India presses the solar accelerator, it must also provide opportunities for such decentralized solutions to be put in place. This is what Germany has done through mostly its “roof top" approach based on a feed-in tariff guaranteed for 20 years. The country that gave the world kindergarten has now contributed another transformative concept, namely energiewiende or energy transition.

Germany today has over 37,000MW of solar capacity, an incredible achievement especially in view of the fact that it is not exactly blessed with the type of around-the-year sunshine like India. Taken together with its wind energy capacity of 31,000MW or so, presently Germany gets around 30% of its electricity supply from renewables. By 2050, this could well be 80%, a revolution in the true sense of the term, made even more momentous by Germany’s population size and the size and nature of its economy.

However, it is not just these headline numbers that should invite our attention: what is perhaps even more significant is the fact that today, over 5 million Germans have emerged as energy producers either as individual families or in cooperatives.

The very structure of electricity generation, transmission and distribution is changing radically in Germany and the market share of the four big utilities is consistently declining.

That roof top solar model has enormous potential in India is revealed by just one example: the new office of the ministry of environment and forests in New Delhi runs on a 1MW solar roof top system.

It has, incidentally, also cut its air-conditioning load by 50% by geothermal solutions, making it perhaps the greenest building in the country today—and all done by the much-maligned central public works department!

There are, to be sure, quite a few promising initiatives in decentralized generation and distribution in this country as well based on solar energy (and other sources like rice husk). The well-known NGO Development Alternatives has started a programme of household electrification in a cluster of villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh based on decentralized solar plants which also provide power for other local commercial enterprises (like mobile phone towers) while Magsaysay-awardee Harish Hande’s social enterprise SELCO has launched a similar programme in urban and peri-urban areas.

In February 2009, Rural Electrification Corp. (REC) had created a separate decentralized distributed generation (DDG) window under the flagship Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) for supporting such initiatives and close to 775 projects covering around 3,700 villages and hamlets have been sanctioned in the past five years. This figure itself conveys all—that DDG has remained a showcase and has not reached any scale worth talking about. Over 70 million rural households are in need of environmentally clean power urgently. That is the real challenge.

The Delhi-based think tank Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has recently come up with three different scenarios for reaching this 100GW objective in seven years time, in which the share of utility-based solar generation ranges between 50% and 85%. The lower share is what we should be aiming at but in all probability we will get fixated on the upper end because it is more “visible", thereby not really deriving the full benefits of solar energy.

The CEEW analysis is also interesting in other aspects of which two are particularly relevant.

First, at current levels of manufacturing capacity, imports of close to $10 billion a year over the next seven years would be required to meet the 100GW target for 2022 which does point to the need to substantially augment domestic manufacturing capacity.

Second, the quantum of annual investments required to reach the target is around four times the current level of annual investment pointing to the need for new financial instruments and mechanisms.

Yesterday, in his customary annual address to all MPs as the budget session of parliament commenced, the President of India mentioned that his government would increase the share of renewables (solar plus wind plus biomass) in electricity supply from the present 6% to 15% in seven years. This may appear ambitious but there is simply no other alternative.

It will call for a gigantic effort, but we should not be content with being mesmerised by macro numbers: the micro numbers in terms of homes and villages electrified are equally important and demanding of attention.

The author is a former union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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