Bridge India

Can Modi’s plan to electrify India with solar work?

Following his overwhelming election victory, Narendra Modi made some first comments on what he plans to do. One of the boldest statements was his promise to provide one light bulb in every one of India’s roughly 80 million un-electrified homes by 2019, using the power of solar energy. Is that realistic?

  • India already has experience with rural solar lighting to build on. But the experience also demonstrates the challenges.
  • The ecosystem[i] to support off-grid solar lighting energy in the country will have to be strengthened for the success of this mega-initiative
  • Off-grid lighting providers and LED manufacturers will likely be showered with subsidies to meet this target. However, in the past, subsidies have often been ineffective or even counter productive.   

Modi Sun

This may be it. For the nearly 400 million people living in the country without access to electricity, there may actually be a light at the end of what has been a long tunnel. However, the task will not be easy and successive governments have tried their hand through various schemes and yojanas to fulfill the promise of electricity for all.

In the 1970’s my own grandfather paid to have the electricity poles extended a little further to reach our house in a village in the middle of the sand dunes in western Rajasthan. Unfortunately he never lived to see the day when the grid actually carried electricity to our home. That happened just a few years back. Electrification remains elusive for many families in the area, many of whom have turned to solar home lighting systems to meet their basic needs.

With this latest promise by the incoming government, the market opportunity (see my previous blog) for decentralized solar lighting technologies in the country has become very real. If indeed solar LED lighting is to be brought to every un-electrified home, then we must look to what types of companies and models can make this proposal a reality and sustain it. To make the case, I examine the case of a (unnamed) pioneering company that began deploying LED-based solar lighting systems in the country back in 2005.

At the time, there was hardly a domestic market for LED lights, much less the domestic manufacturing capability that we see today. Coupling solar energy with LED technology increased the functional capacity[ii] of the product, maximizing efficiency. In one particular village in northern Rajasthan, the company deployed solar lighting free of cost on an experimental basis. It also chose to do so without any maintenance and after-sales support. Two years later, when I visited the village, not one of the bulbs distributed had all of their 36 diodes working. In fact, more than half of the homes surveyed, revealed that in the solar home systems they owned, at least one of the diodes had malfunctioned. At the same time, some families were still using the systems, even if they only had one functional diode left. There is simply no alternative. Ultimately, when the light bulbs break down entirely, these families will go back to having no electric lighting.

In this particular case, the company failed to think about creating the ecosystem of support that is needed to sustain off-grid energy projects in a genuine way. This is not an exceptional case. A number of companies and distributors today simply do not care enough about making their solutions last.

Modi’s announcement is a step in the right direction. However, it risks creating a bubble along the scale of the micro-credit scandal that rocked the industry back in 2010. It could turn into a scramble for who can sell the most solar lightings. Initial sales can be increased with clever marketing. If the bubble bursts, however, not only will investors be disappointed, but the poor will again be left in the dark. The policy will have to avoid wasting tax money on schemes that will foster companies and distributors who are exploitative and do not share the development agenda that Modi has inspired.

In order to better understand the characteristics of this market, I am conducting a market analysis of off-grid lighting providers in this country. The first step entails creating a comprehensive sales database of solar lighting products distributed into the market over time. This will help shed light on the historical rate of growth of this sector in the Indian BoP market as well as factors that may affect that growth.

If you are an off-grid solar lighting provider (company, NGO, financial institution, etc.), please consider partaking in this voluntary and confidential study to ensure it is robust and comprehensive. To participate, please fill out this brief survey.


[i] The ecosystem includes appropriate supply chains, a system for maintenance and after sales support, adequate financing, standardization of technology to ensure quality control, and the supportive government policies.

[ii] Here functional capacity refers to the number of hours the system can be used.  Due to a more efficient bulb being paired with the same capacity battery, the hours of use are increased.

Kartikeya Singh is a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University (Boston, USA). Currently a visiting fellow at the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation in New Delhi, Kartikeya is focusing his research on energy access innovation and diffusion.

10 comments

  • Prime Minister Modi’s thinking on Solar Energy is the right way to move forward. Everybody should support this idea of electrifying India with indigenous, un-poluting and SAFE energy source. Solar will provide energy for ALL creating opportunities for every family to develop rapidly reducing poverty in the country. We should applaud Prime Minister Modi, and this will be a good example for every other country to follow.

  • The suggested plan by Prime Minister Modi to acheive 80 million homes electrified with solar in 5 years by 2019 is easily achievable goal…It is possible for India to invest in producing this solar grade silicon required for this as well..technology is available and easily implemented for those who can direct it. This is less of a dream than when JFK announced that let us go to the Moon – motivating industry, job creation and scientific advance and manufacturing advance..India needs manufacturing advance paralleling its software advances in the 1990s
    Neale Neelameggham
    IND LLC

  • I fully endorse the potential of off grid Solar Lighting which can at least help mitigate the lighting needs in our village homes. As you have rightly pointed out the maintenance of these systems is a challenge and I feel that all the NGO and Block Development officers at the Villge District/Taluka level should support finance the training and enable High School students to get self employed. There is an ocean of young workers who can help in this area. The technology is not very complicated and in India a little support from Non Government agencies can go a long way in establishing a revenue lifeline similar to Bunker Roy a barefoot movement which Empowers the common Villge Woman to become a major contributor to the Microeconomy of a Village.

  • The Off grid solar power generation installed in Rural and Urban areas for domestic and small and medium scale industries/ business units will help the power utilities to reduce the power cuts for large scale industries / business units. So either state or Central government should focus on the drive to ensure maximum installation of Off grid Solar power plants through water ever means of incentives/concessions/soft loans etc.
    Similarly there should be strict quality check on the manufacturers to ensure quality product for the money they receive from customers and the manufacturers comply with the promises of the life of the products.

  • Easier said than done. Please remember the Incandescent bulb replacement campaign with CFLs taken up previously. There were so many leakages and false replacement nos. given by the various Electricity Distribution companies, many of the CFL suppliers are yet to realise their payments. Similarly if the individual owner does not pay for the Solar Lights, then they would not feel the ownership and the Govt. would be left with huge subsidy burden. Rural youth should be given training in the maintenance of the Solar / LED systems and have Service Centres in the nearest ITIs/ Polytechnics where the rural folk could take their systems for repairs/replacement. Similarly for farmers Solar Pumps could be implemented which would reduce their dependance on irregular power supply from the local utilities. Unless the cost/kw comes down from the present level of Rs.1.00 – 1.20 lakhs to Rs.20,000 – 30,000 per kw, it would have to be heavily subsidised to reach high penetration

  • Certainly. Part of kerosene subsidy if diverted can finance 80 million Solar Lanterns which can be used both in homes as well as in the fields at night- say when a farmer has to go to the field at night for irrigation water. The effective delivery system is , however, not using individual solar panels but a network of micro enterprises providing charging and maintenance facilities.

  • The case study in this article illustrates the fact the although solar energy is a cheap, renewable and clean source of power, it is technically challenging to achieve on a large scale. A lot of investment in the form of land, technology, and trained manpower is required. Unless research finds more efficient ways of producing energy from the sun, the scope for scaling up the operations is limited. Instead of subsidies, the government must channel resources into research. Developed nations do it this way and we must emulate them.Ultimately the cost of solar energy will be lower and more affordable for people.