In the coal-dependent state, uptake of solar power has been slow and decentralised, driven by people like Reyajudin Ansari.
Karishma Mehrotra Aug 28, 2021 · 11:30 am
Every other day, Reyajudin Ansari clambers up the narrow, dark staircase of his one-bedroom brick home to the terrace, where he wipes off the layers of soot deposited on his solar panels by nearby coal mines.
There is a touch of pride in the 45-year-old tailor’s voice as he talks about the silvery panels that began a domino of events in the village.
“Badlav to aaya hai,” he pronounced in Hindi.
Ansari lives in Maganpur, a hamlet near the eastern corner of Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district. Although one of the state’s top five coal-producing districts, Ramgarh’s GDP is half of the national average. A third of its population is considered “multi-dimensionally poor” across education, health and living indices. And any agriculture, service industry, forests and fisheries that it could have supported have been demoted in favour of mining.
Maganpur too is surrounded by at least five coal mines, but mining is not its sole economic engine. There are about 300 families in the village that, like Ansari, run a tailoring business out of their homes.
On a Friday afternoon, Ansari and his wife, Kaniz Fatima, were stitching blouses for a West Bengal wholesaler on their whirring sewing machine. The pink of the blouses flashed against the faded blue of the walls, of Fatima’s hijab and Ansari’s lungi.
Fatima eased on the machine’s foot pedal, as if following a silent tempo, as Ansari explained how they came to acquire the solar panels. He said that they used to work tirelessly on their sewing machine but, until two years ago, they could earn Rs 150 a day. The hitch was the power supply. Every day, it would go out for three or four hours, rendering the sewing machine unproductive. Things changed in 2020 when Selco Foundation, a sustainable energy company in Bengaluru, and Agragati, a local NGO, helped him secure a bank loan of Rs 15,000 to install two solar panels on his roof.
Over a rooster’s crowing in the gully outside, Ansari remembered the clamour in the neighbourhood when the solar panels came up. They were all that people could talk about. One time, when the electricity went out and didn’t return for three days, dozens of neighbours crowded into his bedroom to charge their phones.
Happy neighbours apart, the solar panels increased the couple’s earnings. Where earlier they made Rs 150 a day, they can now earn up to Rs 250 with uninterrupted power supply.
Their bright success story made others in Maganpur want solar panels of their own. Selco Foundation and Agragati say that since Ansari set the ball rolling, they have helped install 50 panels, with plans to install 50 more by this December and 200 – the majority of the village – by the end of 2022.
Maganpur is not an outlier. In small towns around Jharkhand, such as Bishunpur and Netarhat, shops sell solar panels alongside HD televisions and speaker systems. It’s not uncommon to find a branch of State Bank of India or a tucked-away home with a grid on the rooftop.
This is a marked shift in a state that possesses a third of the country’s coal reserves and derives 10% of its GDP from mining. Experts call the trend decentralised renewable energy for livelihood solutions.
Perhaps because of the mineral dependency or the poverty or both, Jharkhand lags on the Indian government’s renewable goals, officials in the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy said. Other states, such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, have reached economies of scale on their path to generating a third to an eighth of their annual electricity demand through renewables (which is better than most countries). Not Jharkhand. In Jharkhand, the scale of adoption is decentralised, driven by people like Ansari.
“Jharkhand is a very interesting case,” said Tirthankar Mandal, the Head of Energy Policy at World Resources Institute. “As energy experts in Delhi talk about the transition and net zero, if all this transition has to be implemented at the state level, for a state like Jharkhand, what does that mean?”
In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference this November, there is growing pressure on India to commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “All roads to successful global clean energy transitions go via India,” a recent International Energy Agency report states. “India’s change is global change.”
Powerhouses such as the US, China, EU, Japan, UK and South Korea have already agreed to get to net-zero (a target to match the amount of greenhouse gases produced with the amount removed from the atmosphere). Getting to net-zero will be critical if the world wants to meet its obligation under the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius.
But India is circumspect. It maintains that developed countries which industrialised first have made a bigger contribution to climate change and should therefore do more to reduce the damage. It further argues that setting onerous goals would stifle its development as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
So, instead, it wants G20 countries to adopt per-capita targets. This arithmetic obviously suits its interests. Even though India is the third largest polluter in the world, producing 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2019, having a massive population means that its per-capita emissions remain one of the lowest.
It’s not that India doesn’t recognise the imminent emergency. The country is already facing the brunt of climate change: in 2019, it was the seventh worst-hit nation by extreme weather events, suffering the second-highest economic loss from climate change.
Under the Paris Agreement, it has agreed to increase non-fossil sources of energy for electricity, decrease the rate of emissions as a share of its GDP, and grow more forest and tree cover to absorb more carbon dioxide.
Many of these goals have a 2030 deadline, when it is also projected to have the world’s largest population. To meet the needs of its people, India will need to add a power system the size of the European Union’s – the largest increase in energy demand in the world. Already, since 2000, India’s energy consumption has more than doubled, making up 10% of the global increase in energy demand.
At present, more than half of India’s power comes from domestic coal, with solar and wind accounting for only 10%. In the last three decades, India’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions increased from roughly 15% of the world average to 40%.
Against this background, all eyes are on solar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a splash in 2015 with an international solar alliance of more than 120 countries. The same year, the country set a target to reach 100 GW solar energy (40 GW rooftop solar and 60 GW solar grids) by 2022.
With an air of inevitability, some prognosticators claim that coal is dying in India. They point to Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani’s decided shift into renewables. The fact that almost three-quarters of Coal India mines are running into losses because of the gradual drop in renewable prices. And that, even in Ramgarh, half the mines have closed down, with the remaining expected to last another 10-25 years. “Coal’s hold over India’s power sector is loosening,” said the International Energy Agency.
But others find these declarations misjudged. They note that the country recently opened its mining to private players and foreign investment, after 50 years of nationalisation. That Coal India is still seamlessly expanding operations (India’s annual production of raw coal has increased every year since 2005, according to the Coal Directory of India). That solar accounts for less than 4% of India’s power generation, and only around 3 GW rooftop solar – including that of Ansari’s – has been installed so far. Jharkhand itself is still auctioning new coal mines.
Irrespective of who is right, India’s reimagination of a coal-free, solar-dependent future banks on state implementation. In a recent spurt of sub-national agenda-setting, India’s carbon-less commitments have been divvied up amongst states, which are updating their five-year State Action Plans on Climate Change from 2009.
Leading the drafting process for Jharkhand’s State Action Plan is Sanjay Srivastava. The additional principal chief conservator of Jharkhand’s Forest Department, Srivastava is adamant that his state will push through. “It will need huge infrastructure change and financial resources. It won’t be easy for this state to migrate, but coal is not of the future. Solar is of the future and we will be able to complete it eventually.”
Progress has been uneven. Jharkhand committed to install enough rooftop infrastructure by 2023 to generate 500 MW solar power from it, but so far it has installed enough to produce just 25 MW. Only 3% of homes in the state use a micro-grid or solar home system for electricity, according to the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy.
Jharkhand suffers from what is called the resource curse: it is rich in natural resources and yet ranks among the poorest states. The irony is, Chief Minister Hemant Soren told iForest last year, “that Jharkhand illuminates the country with its coal but is forced to live in darkness”.
Rohit Chandra, assistant professor at IIT Delhi who has extensively researched energy in Jharkhand, says the state’s power system is so “cash-strapped” that bureaucrats don’t always have the “cognitive space” for renewable investments. Consumed by day-to-day problems, “an energy transition is very far from their list of immediate priorities,” he said.
“It won’t be an easy transition,” said Mukesh Prasad, an executive engineer at the Jharkhand Renewable Energy Development Agency, who is involved in drafting a new state Solar Energy Policy and a solar mini-grid policy. He saw early resistance to the installation of mini grids in 246 villages under a central scheme. In Singhbhum and Chatra districts, he found that some villagers were afraid that after installing solar power systems the government wouldn’t invest in conventional grid in the area. In other villages, local politics was an obstruction.
The biggest hindrance, Prasad said, is that commercially weak power distribution companies have little financial incentive to embrace solar power. Not only are these distribution companies struggling to make ends meet, they often have long-term contracts (up to 25 years) with coal generators.
“Solar will never be an alternative for any source of power. Kehne ke liye theek hai (It’s fine to say it), but it’s very costly,” said Rishi Nandan, a commercial general manager at the state’s primary electricity distribution company Jharkhand Bijli Vitran Nigam Limited.
Others don’t think that a large investment in solar power should be a priority for Jharkhand. “Whatever money exists in the system [in Jharkhand] should be going to alleviate more urgent developmental problems,” Chandra said. “A state like Jharkhand should not be putting state resources into capital intensive assets like solar power.”
What is more, Jharkhand could lose the most from India’s energy transition. While some believe that indirect jobs gained from renewables may surpass that from coal, Chandra argues that “green jobs… have been ridiculously optimistic in a lot of current policy work,” drawing on the imagery of ghost towns surrounding massive solar projects in Bhadia or Rewa.
If the coal desertion in the US, UK and Russia provide any lessons, energy transitions can lead to grave inequality, having technological, economic and political ramifications. In India, estimates of coal employment vary between 7 lakh and 30 lakh for direct jobs and 40 lakh to 80 lakh for indirect ones. Chandra believes that solar power will only provide construction jobs during the set-up stage, unless India begins to manufacture solar cells, panels and turbines.
In Ramgarh, there are portentous signs. When Central Coalfields Limited closed the Saunda D mine in the district in 2016, the informal workforce felt the blow the most because, according to iForest’s book Just Transition, Central Coalfields didn’t facilitate employment rehabilitation.
Researchers from iForest estimate that coal will be phased out entirely from Ramgarh in the next decade or two. Coal companies don’t want to expand production in the district anymore, given the exhausted mines. Out of the district’s 24 mine leases, half are discontinued, eight are running into losses, and only three have a remaining life of more than 20 years.
What will this mean for the jobs of coal miners, transporters, and sellers? Most respondents in a survey in Jharkhand by the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy said that they found coal industry work unattractive. At the same time, they felt that finding alternative jobs will be difficult because they don’t have skills, education and land (much of their agricultural land is owned by mining companies). Seventy per cent of respondents saw coal as beneficial to Jharkhand’s economy.
In his book Future of Coal, Rahul Tongia, senior fellow with the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, argues that adoption of renewables will not be enough to kill coal altogether, considering future costs of storage. He suggests that India should expect both energies to be used together and prioritise cleaning coal “instead of wishing it away”.
It is this hybrid model that is pumping energy into Ansari’s home in Ramgarh. Researchers in the field argue that, given the lack of large-scale investment and dependence on coal, off-grid technologies like Ansari’s present the most viable interim step.
Decentralized renewable energy “is like the younger brother of renewables,” said Abhishek Jain, Fellow and Director at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, who is helping Jharkhand with its solar policy. Even though it won’t be enough to reach the massive targets, he said, “DRE brings together climate and development goals into one. Large scale energy projects can be too abstract for people. This is outcome-driven and can help tangibly show how energy impacts.”
The Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is currently amending its DRE livelihood applications policy, encouraging “scalability without large investments”. Prasad also felt that DRE will play a large role in Jharkhand’s solar policy.
Chandra said that DRE is an unsurprising “technology of choice” in Jharkhand, where major investments are lacking, large areas suffer from inconsistent power, and off-grid can be installed without reliance on state distribution companies.
Unfortunately, as Maganpur shows, implementation can be patchy. While several families in the village were envious of Ansari’s rooftop solar panels, they found it burdensome to travel several times to the bank to get a loan. And without a loan, the upfront installation costs were unaffordable for most.
Selco Program Coordinator Rajesh Pradhan, who is helping Maganpur install solar panels and has worked on similar projects across the country, said that banks in Jharkhand are especially unaware or sceptical of green energy loans. Mandal said the problem is that the DRE sector has failed to attract private investment, running on grant money with little revenue generation.
Even those hopping on the solar train acknowledge the difficulty. Sitting in an Exide distributor shop, manager Wajid Akthar describes the process of selling solar panels to tailors in Maganpur village through Selco Foundation. He started selling solar panels and batteries two years ago and now they account for 40% of his retail.
While he has seen some success stories like Managpur, he has found it difficult to convert more potential customers, among them a group of 50 tourist photographers in front of Rajaruppa mandir. The photographers lose business every time the electricity goes out in the temple – Akthar estimates a combined loss of Rs 6,000 to 8,000 a month. But when the photographers tried to secure bank financing, it never went anywhere.
“Some banks…think poorly of solar. They don’t think the money will be recovered,” Akthar said. “But we will have to change because the coal is also running out.”
Karishma Mehrotra is an independent journalist. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Technology Writings for 2021.