Across India, 300 million people aren’t connected to the electrical grid.
Even for many who are, transmission can be spotty, resulting in frequent brown outs or complete power outages.
Because of this lack of electricity, many Indians are turning to solar power as a way to get their own energy off the grid. That means that in some areas, people adopt renewables before they ever start using fossil fuels like coal.
Kartikeya Singh, a doctoral candidate at Tufts University, has been researching India’s energy poverty for nearly a decade. He shared his photos, his findings, and his stories about this grass roots solar energy movement with Teach Insider.
When you live without power, “there’s so much that you miss out on,” Singh said. “As a child, [you’re] not able to study at night. Basically your day ends when the sun goes down.”
“Economic opportunities are also limited,” he said. “Small shop owners have to shut shop. And in many cases, when they’re using kerosene after the sun goes down, their business is not as robust as say if they had electricity.”
The Indian government has pledged to connect the last household to the electrical grid by 2019.
But expanding the grid can take a long time. This is Singh’s ancestral home in the village of Jakhan, where his grandfather applied for grid access in the 1970s. They just got electricity a few years ago.
Until universal access to the grid becomes a reality, the Indian people are taking power into their own hands — and adopting solar energy at a remarkable rate.
Back in 2007, Singh (far right) surveyed people about their solar energy use. “I literally went into the villages door-to-door, had a million cups of chai, basically sitting down, talking to people,” he said.
Singh found that many local entrepreneurs see solar as a viable business, like this man who bought his own micro grid.
He sells electricity to his neighbour — who can plug into his solar-powered micro grid — and powers the many batteries you can see here.
Solar-powered lanterns are also increasingly popular. Here, a family showed Singh all six that they own to light up their home at night.
This woman ran a business in the state of UttarPradesh renting solar-charged lanterns for 2 Rupees a day. If a customer didn’t bring it back on time, they got a fine.
She charged the lanterns from solar panels on her roof. You can see her husband here posing with them.
This is a franchise of Orb Energy, where a local man has bought the rights to sell Orb solar products. The advertisement reads, “Now our children can study without power cuts.”
“You won’t find many solar products that don’t charge cell phones,” Singh said. In 2010, a report found that more Indians had access to cellphones than toilets.
Renewable energy also changes the game for Indian farmers. Half of their incomes can go into paying for diesel pumps to get water for irrigation, Singh said. So installing solar-powered irrigation pumps, like this one, can help cut both costs and carbon emissions.
Even this gas station is powered by solar, in a somewhat ironic twist.
One particularly inspirational story of solar adoption comes from a place called Barefoot College. Women from villages across India and around the world get grants to come learn how to build solar lighting systems.
When Singh visited, they were making circuit boards. Though many are illiterate, “they can tell you what all the components are in English,” he said.
The women, who are mostly grandmothers, build other solar-powered items, too, like this cooker. Since 2008, the program has brought electricity to over 450,000 people in 40,000 households.
At night, children can come to the solar-powered school at Barefoot College to learn.
This movement to provide power, while unfortunately borne out of necessity because of the lack of access to formal electricity, is incredible. “It’s democratized power for the people,” Singh said.