A series of news articles have come on the web in the last couple of weeks, talking about socio-economic impact of off-grid solar energy in India. Having worked in the same space for over a decade, I couldn’t stop myself but dive into the discussion. My point of view is completely based on my own experience of working on last mile energy access across India.
Most of the stories on the web that I am referring to have highlighted negatives of the off-grid solar sector in India. Some of these articles are on highly reputed platforms like Bloomberg, economist and Science Advance magazine. The science advance magazine in particular cites some examples to question the claimed socio-economic impact of off-grid energy access.
While I do not entirely agree with any of the conclusions made by the above articles, I certainly believe the claims made by solar energy (social) enterprises on socio-economic impact of solar lights on the end users, are highly exaggerated.
While most of the solar energy enterprises claim to be working on access to energy, in reality its only access to light (with some exceptions).
Using a bright solar light compared to a smoky kerosene lamp has a very high feel good factor. However how much of the feel good factor translates to social and economic empowerment or impact is not directly/easily measurable.
While the number of lives impacted calculation is also done in the standard NGO style by multiplying number of products sold/distributed with standard Indian family size of five. A company selling 20,000 solar lamps (irrespective of its size, price and quality) claims to have impacted 100,000 (One lakh) lives.
Companies claim, solar light provides increased working hours to the poor and that translates to increased income hence economic impact. Another claim made is the money saved from kerosene also leads to economic impact. According to my experience, neither of these claims are true! The money paid for the solar lamp can not be recovered by savings from kerosene(subsidized) in the life time of the lamp. And neither does access to light in the evening encourages everyone to do productive work. Considering the people who live off-grid are also economically poor and do a lot of physical work as farmers/laborers and need rest in the evening rather than working for additional hours. In some cases, housewives use the light for some additional bidi rolling or incense stick making but the percentage is very small.
Coming to the off-grid energy/light access, not many of these solar enterprises actually reach out to the un-electrified. A very small percentage of their lamps actually end up with the families without electricity while most of these are pushed down to already electrified households as a back-up light through micro-finance partners. Whether its a home light system company or a portable light manufacturer, everyone sells more with minimum transaction cost and time. And then claim that every single product they sell actually empowers off-grid families multiplied by five. Some of these “off-grid” products are sold in high end shopping malls as well.
Small pico and portable lamp companies are selling big numbers mostly through micro finance and claim millions of lives impacted. Some of them have made big money and big name over the years with multiple international awards under their belt. The simple fact is that most of these customers are repeat customers as most lamps are designed to fail shortly after warranty period and no (or very difficult to access) provision for after-sales service. Accessing a small genuine spare part from these manufacturers for their own product is so difficult that the customer ends up buying another light. Infact just like the mobile phone industry, the solar companies too want the customer to buy a new one every couple of years. The difference is that, the mobile industry attracts customers with additional features and the solar industry leave no option for you but buy a new one.
Again reminding you that, here I am not talking about solar energy but solar light products. I am yet to come across a reputed solar energy company or social enterprise in India which is exclusively focused on livelihood product. Some of the existing players do few projects here and there and claim to be working on livelihoods while they only provide solar panel, battery and inverter to run someone`s machine. Few of these companies who work on livelihood-energy products also keep it as show pieces or do a couple of demo projects and do not focus on creating commercially successful solar energy livelihood products for off-grid population.
Only using sustainability in speeches , proposals and websites doesn’t bring sustainability. Also to be honest, easy money (read unaccountable) flow has left very less room for ‘necessity’ which used to be mother of inventions and innovations. Most funding agencies see what is shown to them and do not put extra effort to verify facts or at least to get another point of view from the sector. We have seen innovations like the much hyped solar boat in Varanasi which was inaugurated by the PM has turned out to be unrealistic and nonviable (read this story here). Despite that, there are organisations working on the same product without looking into real sustainability and replicability. This can do more damage to the reputation of solar energy than help.
Coming back to the other side of the story, access to light too is a huge social challenge in a country like India where around 40% of population still lacks access to basic electricity connection. I have met many happy end users of solar lights whose life have been impacted by solar lights in different ways. There has been stories that we have heard and read about unexpected outcomes of a solar light for families and communities. However, these stories are very small in number and the impacts here can not be entirely attributed to solar light but also many other factors. Though there is a certain feelgood factor and improvement in quality of life for those replacing kerosene lamps with solar ones.
However all the other claims of better health, education, livelihood etc. etc. are anecdotal and not backed by facts and can neither be backed by facts unless there is a direct impact.
However a solar lamp or lighting system has limited direct social and rare direct economic impact on the end user. The way village electrification program is going on under the DDUGJY, it may end up connecting most if not all villages through conventional and alternative electricity by end of 2018. Also going by the Govt.`s promise on 100% household electrification by 2019, we have no reasons to believe that it cant not be done by then. Solar energy companies now will have to focus on more innovative, efficient products with additional features to continue their off-grid business. At the same time, I hope there is equal amount of focus on sustainable energy-livelihood technologies as well.
The good news however is, younger organisations are beginning to focus on productive renewable energy. Reducing cost of solar panels and emerging technologies are also making livelihood solar energy combinations more feasible than earlier.
I am not against off-grid solar lighting and emphasize on bringing in quality service to those who still lack access to basic lighting. However, we are equally responsible to maintain high standards of transparency and tell stories based on facts.
I know a lot of people including some friends may not like it but lets become more honest to the poor man who actually pays our salaries 🙂
"Social enterprises are judged based on what they say rather than what they do…. & that needs to change"