The village electrification committee decided to restrict electricity supply to five hours at nighttime. Greenpeace put up posters telling people not to use energy-hungry appliances such as rice cookers, electric water heaters, irons, space heaters and air coolers.
Dharnai, a community of about 3,200 people in eastern India’s Bihar state, had been without electricity for three decades. So when activists with Greenpeace set up a solar-powered microgrid in July of 2014, the excitement was palpable. But, residents said, the problems started almost immediately. When the former chief minister of Bihar state visited to inaugurate the grid, villagers lined up to protest, chanting, “We want real electricity, not fake electricity!” By “real,” they meant power from the central grid, generated mostly using coal. By “fake,” they meant solar.
Over three months, engineers set up 70 kilowatts of photovoltaic cells on the rooftop of public buildings scattered throughout the village. They installed 224 batteries to store the energy. Artists painted a cheerful mural of rainbows and birds on the wall of the village chief’s office, branding the village “Dharnai Live.” The village also has a website. All told, the installation cost 2.7 crore rupees ($407,050).
The day the power came was one of celebration. Villagers, rich and poor alike, ate sweets. Then, the wealthy families plugged in energy-inefficient televisions and refrigerators. With the power suddenly facing heavy demand, the batteries drained within hours. When Kumar woke up at 4 a.m. before his farming duties to study, the light bulb did not work. “I think it’s wrong that when I studied, the power would get cut,” he said.
M.V. Ramana, a physicist at Princeton University who has studied energy access in India, questioned the ethics of foisting an expensive solution on the poor, who’ve historically contributed so little to global warming.
“I strongly encourage [microgrids] for urban, upper classes of people who can afford it,” he said. “But [I would] not do it on the backs of people who are poor and who can’t afford these experiments.”
Christopher Field, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology and an active participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that rich nations have a moral responsibility to make renewables more affordable in the developing world.
Until that happens, coal plants will continue being built in India in the near future, Field said in an interview in August.
“Right now, if I were Prime Minister Modi, I’d be saying, ‘Gee, I can deliver coal-based electricity way cheaper than I can deliver renewables,” he said.