The decentralized, "soft path" to energy development
Harish Hande had a strong interest in trying to find a sustainable solution to India’s energy woes. While pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, he researched heat transfer issues in large, centralized solar thermal power stations, for sunlight was one resource that India had in abundance.
Then in 1991, Hande took a trip to the Dominican Republic that changed the path of his research. In the Dominican Republic, Hande saw a different model for providing solar electricity to households. The country had numerous micro-enterprises and community facilities in rural areas using solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. Hande came to believe this type of approach would provide a better approach to the problem of electrifying India.
“[The trip] triggered a lot of changes in my thought processes,” Hande reflected. “When I returned, I dumped my previous thesis. Then I looked at rural electrification in India and came here to do my field studies. That’s how the concept for SELCO was born. The Dominican Republic was the inspiration.”
The distributed PV electrification model Hande observed in the Dominican Republic consisted of low-cost PV systems that were sold and serviced by local entrepreneurs and financed by local NGO-managed micro-credit programs. Rather than relying on a centralized power plant, the distributed system involved the installation of small, standalone PV systems on a building-by-building basis. Decentralized solar installations could provide electricity not just to those off the grid, but wherever electricity is unreliable or expensive.
Based on the Dominican example, Hande became convinced that stand alone solar installations could play a key role in bridging India’s economic divide. Solar energy services could be delivered directly to households and required only PV equipment and the sun as infrastructure. Centralized energy systems, on the other hand, required connections to the power grid, which meant living in proximity to towns and cities, or relying on the government to extend the grid to rural areas.
solar energy links
This website includes text, illustrations, and videos on how solar photovoltaic cell technology works.
Overview of the different types of solar energy generation currently available.
A brief history of solar energy from ancient beginnings of passive solar building design to modern photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies.
This academic paper discusses current schemes toward rural electrification in India in the context of centralized efforts vs decentralized efforts such as SELCO's.
This Carnegie Mellon University research paper compares the different options for distributed energy generation in India, including renewable and non-renewable sources.
The Wall Street Journal reports on the difficulty of creating centralized solar generation plants to solve electricity needs.
This Harvard Business Publishing blog post responds to the 2009 India Economic Summit held by the World Economic Forum, arguing that the best solution for solving the country's socio-economic problems involves entrepreneurs like Harish Hande rather than a top-down approach spearheaded by the government.
Hande was not the first to advocate a decentralized vision of power generation. In 1976, Amory Lovins, a U.S. energy consultant, argued that the west should embrace a “soft path” to increasing its energy supply rather than its reliance on centralized coal or nuclear-fired power plants (a system that Lovins referred to as the “hard” path). According to Lovins, a soft path system would consist of small installations utilizing renewable resources (such as solar, hydroelectric or wind). Such a system would encourage energy conservation, as every household and business would have an incentive to limit the amount of electricity it used to the amount that it could generate. The original 1976 Amory Lovins article lays out the distinction between following the soft or hard path to energy development.
In the decades since Lovins’s article, small-scale electric generation facilities based on renewable energy sources have cropped up throughout the world. However, these facilities only generate a small portion of any country’s electricity supply. Most economic development advocates argue that the “hard” path of large power plants and grid extension remains the best option for increasing access to electricity. Soft path advocates, on the other hand, argue that new technologies and the renewed emphasis on sustainability are making small, stand-alone facilities more attractive.
In the 1930s, the United States faced a problem similar to India's current situation. Only 10 percent of the rural population had access to electricity. Private utility companies argued that it was too expensive to string electric lines to isolated farmsteads. However, after the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the beginning of the New Deal, the federal government sponsored massive electrification projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), to bring electricity to rural homesteads. The success of the TVA and projects like it is sometimes cited in discussions of current problems in the developing world.