GIZ - Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit, Ministry of New and Renewable EnergyGovernment of India logos

Rural Energy


Modern energy services allow people to cook their food, heat their homes, read in the evening or refrigerate essential medication. Only with access to sustainable energy, can people use modern media such as radio, television or the internet to engage actively in economic and political processes. Most importantly, energy is essential for competitive business, which in turn generates employment and income. Access to modern energy is therefore crucial to rural development as it creates an environment conducive for enhancing the socio-economic status of the rural poor.

According to the International Energy Agency (2010), approximately 1.4 billion people – over 20% of the global population – do not have access to electricity; 85% of these people live in rural areas. Remoteness, sparse populations and low incomes in rural areas make it difficult to provide connections to the national electricity grid in a cost-effective manner in many countries around the world. Even when a household is connected to the grid, the electricity supply may be erratic in terms of voltage, duration and amount supplied. In these remote regions, candles and kerosene are traditionally used for lighting, biomass is burned for cooking purposes, and animals and humans are the main providers of mechanical power.

The situation is no different in India: almost 400 million Indians do not have access to electricity (Census 2011) and the majority of them reside in rural areas. Although the village electrification rate is close to 94% (Central Electricity Authority {CEA}, May 2012), the actual percentage of rural households with a reliable and continuous power supply is much lower. According to the Ministry of Power, Government of India, a village is taken to be electrified if 10% of its households are electrified. In Bihar, 52.8% of the villages are electrified but only 6% of all households actually use electricity (Greenpeace India, 2012). Almost half the rural households in India still depend on kerosene for domestic lighting and 80% of the population uses biomass fuels for cooking (Census 2011).

Lighting

Lighting, together with cooking, is a primary energy requirement. Lighting in many parts of rural India is still based on fossil fuel technologies such as candles and kerosene lamps.

The brightness provided by a kerosene wick lamp is not even one per cent of that provided by a 100 W incandescent light bulb. As a result, light levels are often insufficient for working or studying after sunset. Added to this, there are health hazards and safety concerns associated with using kerosene. A study by Dustin Poppendieck and colleagues (2010) indicates that pollutants from the cheapest kerosene wick lamps have very small particle sizes, which are absorbed in greater quantities by the lungs. Unguarded candles and wick lamps are particularly unsafe for small children and regularly cause injury and death. Of the 11,000 patients admitted for burn care during an eight-year period in northern India, two per cent were injured through using flame lamps (Practical Action, 2010).

Basic lighting demands can be met using cleaner and safer options. Small isolated electricity grids based on locally available renewable energy sources such as solar, hydro, or biomass can provide sustainable energy for lighting.  Furthermore, stand-alone technologies (e.g. solar lanterns, solar home systems, biogas systems) can be cost-effective alternatives in remote villages.

Cooking

In India, a large part of the population still relies on burning animal dung, agricultural waste and fuel wood on inefficient traditional cooking stoves. These traditional cooking practices engender a wide range of negative socio-economic effects.

Health

For those cooking with biomass fuels on rudimentary stoves, smoke is one of the primary causes of disease and death. Indoor air pollution causes respiratory problems that are responsible for the premature death of more than 1.5 million people per year worldwide; in India this number is as high as 400,000 annual deaths (World Health Organization, 2004). Other health issues for which further evidence is emerging, include incresaed cases of active tuberculosis, pulmonary diseases, increased adverse pregnancy outcomes, low birth weight, and non-life-threatening ailments such as cataract, eye discomfort and headache (World Health Organization, 2009).

Environmental issues

Biomass, if sustainably harvested, is a perfect renewable energy source. However, as biomass is often sourced from non-renewable biomass stocks, its use has environmental implications. Increasing demand for fuel wood is putting significant pressure on existing biomass resources, threatening forests and forest biodiversity. Moreover, emissions from inefficiently burned solid fuels harvested from non-renewable biomass stocks contribute significantly to global warming.

Lost opportunities

Cooking three times a day is common practice in rural India and is generally laborious and time consuming. It is customary for female household members to collect the fuel and to cook. A study conducted by the Fair Climate Network in Koppal Taluk (Koppal district, Karnataka state, India) in 2012, shows that women spend around two hours a day per household on gathering fuel. This time can be gainfully utilised for other income-generating activities.

Clean cooking fuels: liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), piped natural gas (PNG) and electricity can be used for cooking and do not have the adverse effects mentioned above. However, for the foreseeable future these options will remain niche solutions and will not be accessible to the hundreds of millions in rural areas because of the high costs involved, insufficient production, and an unreliable supply.

Given this backdrop, the promotion of improved biomass cookstoves – i.e. stoves with improved efficiency and reduced pollution levels – is an effective way to reduce the negative impacts of traditional cooking practices while allowing rural households to rely on cheap and locally available fuels. Clean and convenient cooking with such stoves will enhance the quality of life and improve the health of large parts of rural India, particularly of women and children.

Earning a Living

The lack of modern energy services significantly limits the income-generating opportunities available to the rural poor. Many production processes as well as service provision either rely on energy or could be substantially more productive, profitable and efficient if access to energy were improved (Practical Action, 2010).

Agriculture is the most relevant income-generating activity in rural areas, providing employment and ensuring food security. A rise in agricultural yield is reflected directly in an increase in local income. Indeed, the productive use of modern applications of energy at each step of the agricultural value chain from production through post-harvest processing and storage to marketing can significantly increase agricultural income.

Many people in rural areas are also engaged in micro and small-scale businesses that require mechanical energy like milling, oil extraction, spinning, etc. In Indian villages, such activities are traditionally carried out using manual or animal labour; the time and the labour involved can be considerably reduced by using power to run appliances and machines. However, as the electricity supply is either poor or non-existent, rural communities have to rely on expensive and polluting fuels to make use of productive appliances (i.e. diesel) or not use them at all. Renewable energy can provide a sustainable and more economical alternative.