Recently, a pall of literal gloom descended on the north of India, which has more than a lesson to learn from this village
MEERWADA, INDIA: Life in the remote village of Meerwada used to grind to a standstill, as darkness descended. Workers downed tools, kids strained to see their schoolbooks under the faint glow of aged kerosene lamps and adults struggled to carry out the most basic of household chores.
The arrival of solar power last year has changed all that. On a humid evening, fans whirr, children sit cross-legged to study their Hindi and mother-of-seven Sunderbai is delighted people can actually see what they are eating and drinking.
"When it was dark, we used to drink water with insects in, but now we can see insects, so we filter it and then drink," said the 30-year-old, whose flame-orange sari and gold nose ring are small defiances in a life close to the poverty line.
Meerwada, on a dirt track rutted by rains and outside the reach of the national grid, struck lucky when U.S. solar firm SunEdison picked it to test out business models and covered the hefty initial expense of installing hi-tech solar panels in the heart of the village.
But rapidly falling costs and improved access to financing for would-be customers could encourage the spread of such systems down the line, while simpler solar schemes are already making profits in areas, where the grid either does not extend or provides only patchy power.
And Asia's third-largest economy, where just this week hundreds of millions were left without electricity in one of the world's worst blackouts, needs all the help it can get in easing the strain on its overburdened power infrastructure.
The country's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) hopes solar systems that bypass the national grid would account for just under one per cent of total installed capacity by 2022. Still a mere flicker, but that 4,000-megawatt (MW) goal would be way up from 80 MW now, when so-called off-grid solar systems are still out of reach for most of the country's rural poor.
Large-scale solar facilities that directly feed the grid, such as those at an over 600 MW solar park recently launched with great fanfare in Gujarat, have been gaining traction for some time.
But potential growth in off-grid solar power offers a ray of hope to the around 40 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population that the renewable power ministry estimates lack access to energy. People like those in the village just 200 metres away from Meerwada, who rely on a hand pump for water and cook by torchlight, as hungry goats creep up on them out of the gloom.
Covering initial investment on solar is key, as in a country with around 300 days of sunshine a year, subsequent costs are largely limited to maintenance and repairs.
"The high up-front capital cost is one of the adoption barriers (for solar projects)," said Krister Aanesen, associate principal at McKinsey & Company's renewable energy division.
"Although diesel is more expensive on a full-cost basis, you defer cash outlay for the fuel ... the cash outlays are different and that's one of the key challenges."
Small-scale direct current (DC) systems from Karnataka in the south to Assam in the north-east have already cleared that hurdle, supplying simple lights and mobile phone chargers at 100-200 rupees per month per light - prices that typically allow installers to cover their initial costs in time.
Private company Mera Gao Power fits roof-top solar panels and then transmission to other houses who pay about Rs. 40 to connect, with costs thereafter about Rs. 25 per week, said Nikhil Jaisinghani, one of the firm's founders. That means it should currently take about 12 months to repay panel installation expenses of about $2,500 for 100 houses, though the cost is set to fall.