Powering to empower rural India


pv magazine: India has achieved 100% household electrification, but reliable electricity access is still a concern. How would you define your role? 

Jaideep Mukherji: The goal of positively impacting lives and livelihoods through electricity can only be realized when power is reliable for a village entrepreneur who wants to shore up income or a household who wants to operate an electrical appliance. Therefore, our primary objective is to ensure reliable access to electricity for unserved and underserved rural communities in India.

We believe that reliable access to electricity is a combination of provision of electricity connection, the predictability of power availability, quality of electricity and service. 

SPI is working to build and nurture ecosystems that promote sustainable and scalable models for delivering reliable electricity.

pv magazine: In what ways do you work towards ensuring reliable access to electricity? 

We follow the energy service franchise model and mini-grid model to achieve this objective. 

The energy service franchise model enables electricity demand growth by ensuring adequate universal electricity access to all customer segments, reliable and quality power supply, and enhanced customer service. It helps all the stakeholders (customers, Discoms, government, energy service providers and state electricity regulatory commissions) to achieve their objectives. 

Our energy services framework builds upon past learnings in rural electricity supply. It provides a robust framework incorporating sound governance principles, a balanced approach to risk-reward sharing, best-in-class operating practices and prudent regulatory mechanisms.

Besides, we have been working very closely with a wide range of stakeholders to develop the ecosystem needed to conceptualize, catalyze, develop, and scale up the distributed renewable energy (DRE) mini-grid sector in India.

The mini-grids operated by private energy service companies, stand out as one of the few distributed solutions that provide electricity for both lighting and productive use in rural areas.

Through rural micro-enterprise development, we create economic opportunities and overall growth of electricity demand by helping village-level entrepreneurs expand their existing businesses or develop new businesses. 

We have developed a set of services to support energy-based micro-enterprise development at the village level. SPI identifies opportunities and technology partners, forges relevant partnerships, and organizes training and capacity building programs. This ensures not only reliable access to electricity but also creates economic opportunities for the people. 

How successful have these interventions been? 

Over the last six years, we have made high-impact interventions in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand to provide reliable access to electricity to the rural households.

We are currently providing electricity access to 309 villages in India, impacting the lives of 308,387 people. We have 309 mini-grid plants set up across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand with an installed capacity of 11.4 MW. 

Our efforts and interventions in ensuring reliable and quality electricity for people have resulted in social and economic outcomes. 

As part of our collaboration with the Odisha DISCOM, we implemented the Model Distribution Zone programme. Under this, we trained 160 women, popularly known as Bijuli Didis in their villages, to provide metering, billing, collection, and customer grievance redressal service across 640+ villages catering to the electricity needs of 110,000 customers. 

The programme provided livelihood opportunities to the women and helped the Discom improve the financial performance, reporting a $1.5 million+ of revenue increase over a period of nine months (till September 2020).

The government has announced a slew of measures in the power sector. How do you measure the government action, and what are your expectations? 

I believe that the power sector could play a crucial role in India’s economic revival in the post-pandemic world. The recent policy measures such as the privatization of DISCOMs in the Union Territories, the special liquidity infusion of INR 90,000 crore into the distribution space and the increased focus on consumer rights reflect the Indian government’s strong intent to transform the power sector and provide reliable power for all.

As the sector continues to recover from the pandemic shock, I would expect the Union Budget 2021-22 to propose supportive policy measures to address the existing systemic challenges, particularly in the distribution space. 

As a major link between the power generation sector and the last-mile consumer, the DISCOMs would require continued government support in terms of policy action and necessary stimulus packages to build greater financial resilience and operational efficiency in the long run. A healthy distribution sector, in turn, will enhance the quality and reliability of power supply, prompting economic activities, employment generation and social development, especially in rural communities.

As laid out in last year’s budget, the focus should also continue to remain on technology adoption such as smart meters to reduce the aggregate technical and commercial losses. I believe that corrective measures in processes such as metering, billing, and collection (MBC) will not only improve the overall power demand but will also have a significantly positive impact on DISCOMs’ revenue generation and profitability.

Hence, I expect strong policy measures and a higher allocation of funds for the DISCOMs in the upcoming budget that can help the sector strengthen its existing infrastructure and adopt the best practices to improve power delivery to the un-served and under-served communities in the country.

How is the mini-grid sector contributing to India’s rural electrification efforts? 

We believe that mini-grids have a very important role to play in rural electrification in India and globally. With the expansion of grid infrastructure, mini-grids (as per their current definition) may be sub-scale for a portion of rural areas in the Indian context. 

In our experience and unlike popular belief, rural customers do have a requirement of electricity which is much more than a bulb and a fan. Moreover, micro-enterprises look for reliable and quality supply of electricity, which is crucial for their businesses. 

Therefore, in areas, especially where on-grid infrastructure is weak due to geographical conditions or low demand makes on-grid electricity unviable, mini-grids continue to be relevant. 

It is interesting to note that despite the per-unit price being slightly higher, customers still are ready to pay willingly and yet find it affordable. This is mainly due to factors such as higher reliability, consistency and quality of supply. 

What measures are needed to improve mini-grid adoption? 

To improve the adoption of mini-grids among consumers, industry players need to focus more on the quality and reliability of power: mini-grids must ensure dependable, uninterrupted service at a voltage sufficient to run customers’ appliances. There is a need to develop a variety of package options with a range of tariffs, load levels, and timings to satisfy customers that they are paying for what they need.

Responsive customer service is equally important. Agents must be available to resolve technical problems, assist with package changes, and spread information about promotions with high customer engagement.

Energy service companies must invest in supporting customer access to energy-efficient appliances.

Renewable energy-based mini and microgrids can be extremely favourable for India. These can help the country power its rural population as the national grid is yet to reach remote areas. The government needs to push this project forward with subsidies, cross-subsidies, and incentives to make reliable 24×7 power for all a reality.


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