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Here comes the sun: Indian consumers go solar as costs plunge

Although it still faces issues, solar power is competitive with newly-built thermal, hydro and nuclear power plants.

The price of solar energy has fallen by half over two years, with prices dropping from Rs 10-12 per unit to Rs 4.63 per unit in 2015, the price at which Sun Edison, a US company, offered to supply electricity in Andhra Pradesh recently, closely followed by another project.

At these levels, solar power is competitive with newly-built thermal, hydro and nuclear power plants, although it still faces issues of being available mainly when the sun shines. Nevertheless, these rates are encouraging a growing number of consumers to bypass India’s creaky electricity grid and directly go solar.

These prices will also boost Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious solar-energy plans. Of a target of 175 giga watt or 175,000 MW of renewable energy capacity by 2022, solar power will account for 100 GW, as Factchecker.in reported. India currently has 5,000 MW of solar power installations; so the government’s target is a 20-fold jump over the next seven years.

Distortions in India’s power sector act as an indirect carbon tax and are pushing some consumers to adopt solar electricity much faster than they would otherwise have, but, as we explain later, this inadvertent push to solar carries great risks of further crippling already crippled power-distribution companies. Two reasons drive these distortions:

First, industrial and commercial users pay above-market prices for electricity in India, and this is pushing them towards solar power. Second, irregular supply forces many industrial users to install backup in form of diesel generators, which are even more expensive. India now has a captive-generation capacity of 36,500 mega watts (MW), or the equivalent of 15% of the country’s conventional power-generation capacity.

India’s state power utilities lose 23% of the electricity they generate to transmission losses (including theft), as IndiaSpend has reported, and 22% as subsidised or free electricity to farmers. To make up for these losses, other consumers–particularly industrial and other commercial users–are charged up to 50% to 90% more than other consumers.

Source: Lok Sabha
Source: Lok Sabha

The three central-government power utilities – National Thermal Power Corporation, National Hydro Power Corporation and Nuclear Power Corporation of India – which generate electricity using coal, hydropower and nuclear energy, charged between Rs 2.8 to Rs 3.6 per unit for electricity during the financial year 2014-15. These companies operate many older plants, which drive down electricity costs.

Source: National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL)
Source: National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL)

If electricity were sold at prices close to those charged by the big three, solar power would still have a lot of catching up to do. However, industrial and commercial users, on average, pay more than twice the cost of the cheapest power generated by the big three. At these prices, shifting from grid power to solar electricity, increasingly, makes commercial sense.

Why airports, oil companies and homes like solar power–when it shines

In August this year, the Cochin International Airport went completely solar, with a 12-MW captive solar farm. The idea appeared to have caught on, with the Civil Aviation Minister calling for more airports to go solar. The Kolkata Airport has just finished installation of a 2-MW rooftop solar plant and wants to follow up with a 15-MW solar farm.

Public-sector oil companies have also started to adopt renewable power for their operations, with 3,135 petrol pumps using solar power. Indian Oil leads; it has converted 2,600 of its petrol pumps to operate on solar energy. Technology major Infosys has just completed a 6.6-MW solar plant at one of its software development centers in Telangana, which is now completely run by renewable energy. Infosys is already building a 40-MW solar farm and plans to add 110-MW solar capacity in the next two years, according to a news report. RBL Bank, a small private sector lender, has also decided to go solar in a small way at 10 of its branches, with rooftop solar panels. Tata Power recently installed a 12-megawatt rooftop solar plant at an educational institute in Amritsar.

However, this is not the full story.

Solar-electricity cost is competitive with grid power, but it is available only for about five or six hours every day. For the rest of the day, users must rely on the grid or store energy in batteries, which can be expensive.

Another market distortion has helped here: Since state power utilities lose money, they are often unable to supply electricity round the clock. As a result, many industrial and commercial users have backup diesel-run generation sets. During 2013-14, more than 2 million tonne diesel was consumed by industrial users to make up for irregular power supply.

“Rooftop solar costs around Rs. 6.5 per kWh (kilo watt hour) for systems of 200 kW or more,” said Dr Tobias Engelmeier, founder and director of Bridge to India, a solar-power consulting firm. “With batteries, you are looking at a doubling of the electricity cost. This currently makes no sense vis-à-vis grid tariff. People are trying to replace diesel gensets (which cost more than Rs 15 per kWh), but this is still early stage.”

Rooftop solar’ – solar panels fitted on rooftops of houses, factories and commercial establishments – reached 525 MW across India by October 2015, of which 75% has been installed either by industrial or commercial users, according to Bridge to India estimates. The next 12 months should see another 455 MW of rooftop capacity, said the company. Mercom, another consulting firm, expects India to add 2,150 MW of solar capacity in 2015 and 3,645 MW in 2016.

In other words, the solar-power capacity added over these two years is more than the entire solar capacity added up till 2014, indicating a tipping point for solar power.

Rooftop solar plants are usually enough for a single user, a home-owner or a factory. Their popularity indicates costs are competitive. Thus far, only large users generated their own power.

Without energy reforms, the Prime Minister’s solar-power dreams are difficult

The shift of industrial and commercial users from grid electricity will mean that high-paying customers will continue to leave state-owned power-distribution utilities, which lost Rs 62,154 crore ($10.3 billion) during 2013-14.

The Central Government appears to recognize the need for energy reform and has recently launched a scheme – the Ujjawal Discom Assurance Yojna – to restructure the debts of power distribution companies and reduce the cost of electricity.

However, these measures do not address the energy stolen or lost and given to farmers free or almost free. These losses burden the taxpayer and prevent distribution and generation companies from investing in new infrastructure or technologies, such as solar power.

This article was originally published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.

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The inspiring projects that are changing girls’ education in India today

New ideas to do more for girls’ education from around the country.

In 1848, when Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotirao Phule began the first school for girls in India, it caused an uproar in Pune. In the mornings, when Savitribai would walk to school, neighbors threw garbage at her in an effort to shame her. She and her husband persevered, and the school that began with just nine girls changed the way the city viewed girls’ education, eventually making Pune the home to many firsts. In 1885, Huzurpaga the first high school for girls was founded there. And in 1916, exactly a hundred years ago, the city saw India’s first university for women - SNDT.

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While we have come a long way with wide support for girl’s education today, actual outcomes have lagged. We looked at some of the most promising schools and projects that address key issues holding girls back through fresh approaches.

Solving the problem of drop outs in cities - Prerna High School

A school near the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow is carrying out an incredible experiment in girls’ education. Prerna Girls School is a high school for underprivileged girls, many of whom come from local slums and work as domestic help. To enable these girls to fit education within their circumstances, the school operates in the afternoons. When they arrive, each child is given a snack every day as a nutritional intervention and to increase attendance.

What makes this school’s approach unique is its radical syllabus that, besides the usual subjects, also teaches students to recognize and fight gender bias with tools like critical dialogues, drama, storytelling and music. The school also works to gently alter discriminatory mindsets among parents through such activities. The school intervenes and brings in counselling support in cases of child marriage, without getting into an adversarial relationship with the family. After schooling, Prerna provides vocational training and helps students find employment, further encouraging girls to stay in school.

Urvashi Sahni, founder of Prerna High School, says “Teachers must first understand and respect the circumstances students come from and then work actively to keep the girls in school and build their aspirations. The school must provide long-term and comprehensive support.”

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Prerna Girls School

Adapting village schools to overcome rural challenges - Shiksha Karmi Project

Teacher absenteeism is a major obstacle to education in rural areas. In 1987, the state government of Rajasthan started the Shiksha Karmi (education worker) Project to curb drop out rates and bring students back to rural schools.

The project substituted absent professional teachers with a team of two locals. The theory was that a person from the community would have a better understanding of the conditions of local children. The villagers also had a say in the appointments and the volunteers were given intensive training and were subject to periodic reviews. Since the gender of the teacher is a big factor in getting girls to attend schools, female volunteers were recruited despite difficulties.

In addition, the Shiksha Karmis also started Prehar Pathshalas where girls who could not attend regular schools, due to commitments at home, were taught at times convenient for them. According to a report from the National Resource Cell for Decentralized District Planning (NRCDDP), both these initiatives contributed towards increasing retention of girl students. 22,138 girls—around 68% of the students have been able to resume their education because of Prehar Pathshalas. Additionally, to scale the project, 14 Mahila Prashikshan Kendras (Women Training Centres) have been established to train women teachers and increase enrolment of girls in villages.

Breaking stereotypes through sports - Yuwa

Yuwa was founded by Franz Gastler, a social worker, in Jharkhand in 2009. It began as a small scholarship fund for hard-working students at a local government school. Around the same time, a 12-year-old girl asked Franz if he would coach a football team. What started as a basic kick-about has evolved into something significant. More girls began coming to the practices. They began to request daily practices and saved money to buy sports equipment. Eventually the girls in Yuwa began wanting more classes in addition to football, and the Yuwa School was founded in 2015 — a full time, low cost, English-medium all-girls school that is linked to the football program. The football teams provide the necessary social support for girls to stay in school, maintain excellent attendance, and gain the confidence to get ahead.

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Yuwa Foundation

Training for the jobs of the future - Indian Girls Code

Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) education is widely seen as critical for emerging jobs, yet stereotypes and other barriers often discourage girls from choosing these subjects. As a result, there is a widening gender gap in STEM fields. For example, an MHRD report shows that only 8.52% of the girls enrolled in higher education were pursuing bachelor degrees in engineering or technology in 2012-13. This was far below the national average of 13.27%.

Deepti Rao Suchindran, a neuroscientist and her sister, Aditi Prasad, who works in Public Policy, felt that this gap needed to be addressed. They started Indian Girls Code, inspired by initiatives like “Girls Who Code” and “Black Girls Code” in the US. It is a free hands-on coding and robotics education program that is inspiring young girls to be innovators in the field of technology by creating real-world applications. It is currently teaching 25 girls, ages 7 to 12, from the Annai Ashram orphanage in Trichy. While the initiative is small today, it has partnered with Ford Motors and Cisco to provide similar programs for girls. Going by global examples, there is great potential to scale. “Girls who Code” has grown from 20 girls in New York to 10,000 girls across America.

Girls from the orphanage learning sequential programming through a Beebot
Girls from the orphanage learning sequential programming through a Beebot

Beyond successful projects and pilots, it’s important to think of interventions for education in a structural and scalable manner. Kiran Bir Sethi’s “Design For Change”, a youth empowerment program in Ahmedabad is a great example. Five years since inception, it now reaches 200,000 students over 30 countries. Students are ingrained with the belief that they can change the world and are encouraged to identify problems in their communities and recommend actionable solutions. Their efforts have ranged from fighting untouchability in a village in Rajasthan to creating awareness among stone mine workers about the hazards of their work.

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Design For Change

The DFC program has gained worldwide recognition winning prestigious awards like the Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Award in 2012. But most importantly it has inspired thousands of girls to take an active role in changing society. Similarly, Prerna Girls School is running a program to train teachers from government schools to widen impact. And many girls from the Yuwa program are becoming leaders of positive change—over 20 Yuwa girls have spoken at TEDx and at universities in India and abroad

Making education accessible and enjoyable for girls is what will take girl child education to the next level in India. And while many organisations and programs are slowly bringing about change, there is still a long way to go. Learning about and supporting these organisations is a good way to shape the conversation regarding girls education in India. Join the conversation here.

This article was produced on behalf of Nestlé by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.

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