Mini-grids could be a boon to poor people in Africa and Asia
A FORESTED village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid. Drive past a police checkpoint a few miles away and you are in territory loyal to “the guys”, a euphemism for Maoist guerrillas. That makes Narotoli more marginalised than most places. A few months ago it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.
Two years before the grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network. Mini-grids are different from the rooftop solar panels and batteries (sometimes linked up in “micro-grids”) increasingly used in poor countries to provide LED lighting and to charge mobile phones. Narotoli’s 22.5-kilowatt mini-grid provides lighting to scores of homes linked by its poles and wires, as well as powering a seed-crushing machine for cooking oil, irrigation in the dry season and power for a poultry farm—all of which engender economic activity.
The power generated by the plant is expensive (though it costs less than villagers often pay for alternatives such as kerosene for lighting and diesel for irrigation pumps). The worry is that demand for electricity may not be enough to justify the installation cost. As one Indian official recently scoffed: “Why provide a Ferrari to people who need a bullock cart?”
Photo courtesy of Sameer Halai.