Navigant Research Blog

India’s Microgrid Moment

Peter Asmus — August 24, 2012

As noted earlier by my Pike Research colleagues, the massive power outage in India that left over 370 million people in the dark in late July could open up opportunities for cleantech in booming South Asia.  It could also help make India one of the world’s top hotspots for remote microgrids.

Remote microgrids can serve as the anchors of new, appropriate scale infrastructure, a shift to smarter ways to deliver humanitarian services to the poor.  That’s why financial support for remote microgrids has come from the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and non-government entities such as the Clinton Climate Initiative and the Bill Gates Foundation.  Even Greenpeace has endorsed the concept, with a report extolling a bottoms-up distributed renewables strategy to export surplus solar power out of the Indian state of Bihar via microgrid networks.

Clearly, relying upon centralized coal plants to fuel India’s expanding economy is not a viable solution.  As climate change expert Joe Romm points out in a blog on The Energy Collective, mobile phone towers powered by off-grid renewable energy sources may be pointing the way toward viable energy supply solutions for India.

Just as the developing world leapfrogged landlines – the equivalent of today’s centralized transmission grid – to move directly to mobile and wireless telecommunications, it may skip to distributed microgrid networks (the analogue of cell phones), rather than building out massive long-distance transmission networks.  More importantly, from an environmental point of view, these remote systems will not rely on diesel power generation, the default source of power throughout much of the developing world.

At present, entrepreneurs view India as an attractive market since all microgrids under 1 megawatt (MW) in size are deregulated, which means that these systems can be developed by the private sector with a minimum of government red tape.  Among the leading innovators is Simpa Networks, which has developed a “pay-as-you-go” business model that allows villages looking for simple systems to power lighting and mobile device-charging services.  Billing its service as a “progressive purchase,” the firm relies upon smart meters to measure consumption.  Customers purchase power in much the same way millions of cell phone users buy prepaid cards.  The difference is that customers are slowly investing in their own solar PV systems, which are typically paid off within 3 to 5 years.

One of the first microgrids to be deployed in India to service more affluent customers was installed by smart meter vendor Echelon for the Palm Meadows Community in Hyderabad, India.  This 86-acre gated community with 335 homes and residential services offers another peek into the future for India.  The community ties into the grid at a dedicated substation and sources energy in bulk from the utility.  While the community still runs primarily on diesel generators, a pricing plan can reduce consumption to help respond to peak demands.  The microgrid will also incorporate solar PV into rooftops that will feed energy back into the grid, creating a solar infrastructure with payback options.

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