It is now little more than a year that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed to by the World’s nations at the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2015. SDGs are a set of 17 goals, backed by 169 targets, which aim to dramatically improve lives of people across the world by 2030. A major goal is the SDG7 that aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.

While mainstreaming of the SDG7 would vary across countries, it is important to develop national priorities and schemes in alignment with the SDGs. The nodal ministry for achievement of the SDG7 targets in India is the Ministry of Power. NITI Aayog is the agency designated for monitoring the achievement of all SDG goals. I discuss here two critical indicators – access to electricity and cleaner cooking options for all – and their progress and challenges. 

At the national scale, the present progress towards achievement of the SDG7 appears remarkable with 97% of the villages provided with electricity. The Indian government has launched UJWALA scheme for providing 50 million underprivileged households with LPG. A deeper analysis, however, raises some concerns, which if not addressed, may pose difficulties in achieving the SDG goals.

Unaddressed issues in electricity access

Considering the decadal population growth, the annual growth of rural households in India is estimated at approximately 2%, while the average annual growth in the number of households being electrified is around 3%. The government estimates suggests that there are about 58 million un-electrified households and these households will be covered under the “Power for All” by 2019. However, it appears from Grameen Vidyutikaran (GARV) data that the annual growth of households, since the last census in 2011, has not been taken into consideration to arrive at this figure. If we consider the annual growth, the number of un-electrified households is almost 23% higher. This clearly indicates that the pace of household electrification is much slower than that desired.

Analysis of Census and GARV data at the state level indicates that the access rate has come down from 62% in 2001 to around 57% in 2016 in the case of Madhya Pradesh. In Assam, the household electrification rate has increased by a mere around 1% every year during 2001 to 2016 and now is at 35%. On the other hand, West Bengal has more than quadrupled the connection rate from 20% in 2001 to 95% in 2016. The key challenge to achieve the SDG goal is how to connect the un-electrified households in the laggard states, which are mostly in villages where grid infrastructure may already be present, and also sustain them.

Financing household electricity connections

While village electrification progress has been relatively fast, the intensification has not been fast enough. In most villages, there is also a very thin line of difference between below poverty line households, who are provided free connections, and the above poverty line households. One way could be through the financing of the connection costs, metering and household wiring of the households who are interested but do not have adequate resources. Another option could be to use the deprivation framework of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) to select households for the subsidized connection. Further, the good practises of achieving states should be shared with laggard states for cross-learning.

There are large numbers of un-electrified hamlets of electrified census villages. As the main village has got the connection and so in government records, the hamlets are also considered as electrified. Such habitations need to be identified and either covered under government schemes or through renewable energy based mini-grids involving the private sector. However, the private sector has to be adequately incentivised and ensure certainty of their return on investment for them to make the investment.

Clean cooking through Induction cookstoves

Another important task is to ensure access to clean cooking options. While the UJWALA program is laudable and has been making considerable progress, TERI studies indicate fuel stacking is a major issue in villages. Most families tend to use LPG only for emergency cooking rather than cooking their major meals. One of the reasons could be the higher monetary expenses incurred for using the commercial fuels. Considering the subsidized price of LPG domestic cylinder, a family of 5-6 persons may have to spend around Rs 500 per month to cook their major meals. With nearly three-quarters of all rural households having their income at Rs 5,000 or less, as per the last SECC, spending anything above 10% of their total income towards fuel will make them energy poor. While there is no denying the fact that all households have to be provided with cleaner fuels to reduce household air pollution, what is equally important is to ensure an increase in the rural income substantially, so that the incremental income is used for meeting the energy needs in a cleaner way.

Along with LPG, the government should also promote induction cookstoves. Fuel expenditure in case of induction cookstoves is almost same as the expenses for using LPG. Similarly, cost towards LPG cookstoves and connection and the price of good quality induction cookstoves are almost similar. Use of such cookstoves will also put to optimal use of the electricity infrastructure being created. With comfortable power supply situation and power plants running at lower capacity than their availability, this will also ensure better plant load factor. The synergetic effect of providing access to electricity and “electrifying the other energy demand” using the same infrastructure will be enormous: through better revenue sustainability of the discoms and avoided cost towards creating a parallel supply chain for the cooking fuel. Unless we are electrifying demand, producing energy from renewables by adding on huge capacities will not result in better outcomes. Energy efficient cookstoves with star rating can also be launched. With higher efficiency and lower electricity consumption and no emission of harmful pollutants, this will be a viable rural solution towards achieving the SDG7 goal.

 

A shorter version of the blog was published as an opinion piece via Addressing energy poverty in India | Business Line