Energy poverty is oneDemo of solar LED lantern usage in Mankapur Haat Market of the world’s greatest challenges. There are billions of people without access to reliable and reasonably priced electricity. In India, alone, there are some 400 million people in energy poverty. The new Indian government has set a major initiative to change this situation radically and rapidly: “to harness solar power to enable every home to run at least one light bulb by 2019″.

“We look upon solar as having the potential to completely transform the way we look at the energy space,” said Narendra Taneja, convener of the energy division at Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party

This has the potential to change radically the situation throughout India. Access to even a few hours of light, for example, has had a major impact on the status of women as the lighting enables children to do their homework. A few hours of the lighting will equate to adding years of education to the poorest of Indians.

And, this is a very cost effective option. A solar lighting system costs in the range of 1-2 months of kerosene for an indoor lamp. Just on fuel costs, perhaps a 400 percent return in the first year — freeing up money for other things (whether food, education, or …) — along with reduced pollution (both indoor for health and larger scale climate / other impacts).

If successful, the political impact is hard to overestimate.

it’s hard to imagine politicians not understanding the appeal of bringing power to the people: every time they turn on the lights voters will be reminded of the BJP.

The markets are already assessing the implications. India’s electricity system is cumbersome, inefficient, and heavily dependent on coal imports. If the new government follows through on its promise, with renewable energy a cornerstone of its energy policy, expectations of increased coal exports might turn into a chimera.  As discussed at RENewEconomy,

For coal exporting nations like Australia, however – who have been forging ahead with the development of new mega mines and infrastructure in the belief that coal is the only solution to India’s booming energy needs – this news will not be welcome.

As far back as mid-2012, signs were already emerging that a rebirth in the development Australian coal infrastructure was masking huge problems in the Indian energy market, such as poor supply and pipeline infrastructure and the increasingly unviable cost of coal imports.

And as recently as January, leading investment bank HSBC warned that the market value of the coal assets owned by Australia’s biggest mining groups could be slashed by nearly half – or more than $US20 billion – due to constraints of the global “carbon budget;” a concept HSBC says is gaining traction, given the climate science, and the implementation of pollution control policies in the US and China.

A month earlier, in December, the International Energy Agency trimmed its five-year forecast of global coal use, warning that environmental constraints, financing issues, and the current cost of coal exportsraised “concerns about the economic feasibility of projects in the Galilee Basin.”

Now, India’s ambitious new five-year solar lighting goal further subtracts from the much diminished future coal equation.

About 400 million people in India lack access to electricity, more than the combined population of the U.S. and Canada. The outgoing government led by Prime MinisterManmohan Singh missed a 2012 target to provide electricity to all households.


Photo credit: From Engineering for Change on Flickr. Story of these solar powered lanterns at Engineering for Change.