Renewables-based mini-grids: What is powering remote villages in Tamil Nadu?

In India, a mini-grid is defined as a system having an RE-based electricity generator with a 10–1,000 kW capacity.

BySharada Balasubramanian | Jency Samuel

Published Jul 08, 2024 | 11:00 AM Updated Jul 08, 2024 | 4:29 PM

While some hilltop villages don’t have power connection, those that do experience an erratic supply (Jency Samuel)

Kerosene lamps are the only source of light in the homes of indigenous people in Kalapparai village.

“Kalapparai, with a population of nearly 100, is one of the seven hilltop villages in Pechiparai panchayat in Kanniyakumari district that doesn’t have electricity,” says Jansi Leela, secretary-cum-director of People’s Upliftment in Rural Areas (PURA), an organisation working in these villages populated by indigenous people in Tamil Nadu.

Settlements in Sittilingi village in Harur taluk of Dharmapuri – another district in Tamil Nadu – have erratic power supply, according to S Blimsha, a resident. And there are hilltop hamlets near Sittilingi without power connections.

N Nanjappan, former member of the legislative Assembly who heads Tamil Nadu Tribal Society, reels out a string of village and hamlet names in the same situation in many districts.

Hundred percent rural electrification?

In July 2022, India announced that the country achieved 100 percent rural electrification.

With assured irrigation through the mini-grid, farmers saw an increase in paddy yield by 52percent (Mlinda Charitable Trust)

With assured irrigation through the mini-grid, farmers saw an increase in paddy yield by 52
percent (Mlinda Charitable Trust)

Tamil Nadu prides itself as a power-surplus state, and sells power to other states.

But there are some remote pockets, such as the villages in Pechipparai and Harur, that still do not have electricity.

According to REC Limited (formerly Rural Electrification Corporation Limited) Tamil Nadu achieved 100 percent electrification in 1987. The 2020 report of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGYJ) – a Government of India scheme for rural electrification – also mentions that the number of un-electrified houses in Tamil Nadu is nil.

That is because, according to the Ministry of Power, one of the criteria for 100 percent rural electrification is that, in a village, at least 10 percent of the houses are electrified.

This explains the reason why village homes without electricity connections exist, despite the claim of 100 percent electrification.

“Connecting villages like Kalapparai is difficult because of the terrain. There are a lot of difficulties in transporting and installing the infrastructure,” says a Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) official in Kanniyakumari district, who wishes to remain anonymous.

TNEB transports transformers and poles in boats over the waters of Pechipparai Dam to such inaccessible places.

“We try our best to connect the villages to the grid,” says the TNEB official. “Villagers will vouch for our work,” he adds.

V Reghu, the village coordinator at PURA – himself a resident of one of the hilltop villages – admits that these localities are on steep hill slopes but TNEB has electrified many villages in the last few years.

While there may be valid reasons why electricity has not reached these remote villages, there are solutions, mini-grids powered by renewable energy (RE) being one of them.

Also Read: Tamil Nadu 3rd in capacity installation of solar power in India

What are mini-grids?

In most countries, electricity is generated where sources such as coal, gas and water are available, and the generated electricity reaches the consumer through a network of transmission and distribution lines, referred to as the grid.

Mini-grids and microgrids generate electricity close to where they are used, in islands, for example.

Often, they are not connected to the main grid.

Microgrids are used by small residential or commercial consumers. Mini-grids are larger configurations, powering commercial outlets, universities, factories and islands, according to International Electrochemical Commission (IEC) that produces standards related to electrical and electronic technologies.

In India, a mini-grid is defined as a system having an RE-based electricity generator with a 10–1,000 kW capacity.

Also Read: Kerala power consumers with solar panels cry hoarse over ‘inflated’ bills

Harnessing renewable energy

“Mini-grids can serve remote places and small wind turbines are ideal for these mini-grids,” says Francis Jayasurya, India Director of Global Wind Energy Council. “There are many places without stable supply, necessitating a mini-grid.”

For 74% of the households in Gumla, mini-grids are the primary source of lighting (Mlinda Charitable Trust)

For 74% of the households in Gumla, mini-grids are the primary source of lighting (Mlinda Charitable Trust)

Health facilities, primary health centres in rural areas in particular, are such places that need refrigerators to store medicine.

Citing the instances of blackout – including in hospitals – that resulted in fatalities over the last few years, two researchers have suggested that the Madurai unit of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Thoppur village should be powered by a mini-grid.

Considering the land required for solar panels and the available wind resources in the locality, they have suggested a wind-powered mini-grid.

Analysing wind data of Manamelkudi, a coastal village in Pudukottai district, over a year, scientists at the Chennai-based National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE) published a paper on the potential of wind-solar microgrids in coastal Tamil Nadu.

“We have 300 sunny days and six months of wind. These resources complement each other since you get solar power during the day and wind during the night. Our research shows that wind-solar hybrid microgrids can be installed in coastal villages where the load is likely to be 50–100 kW,” says K. Boopathi, director of wind resource assessment division at NIWE and one of the authors of the paper.

RE-based mini-grids for basic energy needs and beyond

While the energy demand keeps increasing – climate-induced higher temperatures adding to the demand – smaller towns feel more power fluctuations and outages. In 2024, many farmer groups in Tamil Nadu staged protests during summer months, over non-supply of 3-phase electricity.

Mini-grids in Gumla help women set up micro-enterprises and add to their household income(Mlinda Charitable Trust)

Mini-grids in Gumla help women set up micro-enterprises and add to their household income
(Mlinda Charitable Trust)

Currently the contribution of renewable energy in Tamil Nadu’s energy mix is 21 percent. The state aims to increase this to 50 percent by 2030.

Connecting new solar and wind projects to the grid by adding or upgrading transmission infrastructure would be a financial burden to the already cash-strapped distribution company (discom) – called Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO) – in charge of these works.

In this scenario, RE-based mini-grids can harness lower wind speeds with the use of small wind turbines and solar generators and power clusters of villages.

While doing so, mini-grids can also help villagers improve their livelihood, as Kolkata-based Mlinda Charitable Trust (MCT) – founded by Mlinda Foundation UK – has demonstrated in Gumla district, Jharkhand.

While Mlinda Sustainable Environment Private Limited – MCT’s for-profit sister entity – installs and commissions the mini-grid, MCT identifies the underserved areas where there is lack of reliable power and potential for value addition for agricultural commodities.

“There were a few small flour mills and rice hullers earlier, mostly powered by diesel. Now that we have commissioned 44 solar-powered mini-grids across Gumla, there are more than 1,300 micro-enterprises running on clean energy,” says Shelly Kerketta, who heads the economic development wing at MCT.

“Villagers sell value added products, such as karanj oil, turmeric powder, mustard oil and deshelled groundnut.”

Now that round-the-clock power is available through the mini-grids, villagers find improvement in their children’s education, increase in their income and decrease in their energy expenditure, finds a third-party impact study. Average household income has increased by 23.1 percent.

An added advantage is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent.

Government initiative

The government issued a Draft National Policy on Mini and Micro-grids in 2016, but did not go beyond the draft stage.

Farmers find irrigating their fields a challenge when there is no 3-phase power supply (JencySamuel)

Farmers find irrigating their fields a challenge when there is no 3-phase power supply (Jency
Samuel)

In January 2024, India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) had announced the Pradhan Mantri Janjati Adivasi Nyaya Maha Abhiyan (PM JANMAN), to provide electricity to 100,000 households through solar mini-grids in habitations of indigenous peoples in 18 states including Tamil Nadu.

This was amended in March 2024 to include capital expenditure mode to the original renewable energy service company, in what is called the RESCO mode.

In Tamil Nadu, it’s under the purview of Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA), which did not respond to requests for details on plans for mini-grids and allocation under PM JANMAN.

In Mlinda’s model, the initial connection cost to the mini-grid is ₹3,000 for domestic use and ₹7,000 for commercial use, whereas a 3-phase connection from the government costs a minimum of ₹50,000. While the state’s electricity department was not involved in the mini-grid installation process by Mlinda, an approval was obtained from MNRE.

“It’s a pay-and-use model. Whoever gets a connection gets a meter. It’s a prepaid recharge just like your phone,” adds Kerketta.

MP Ramesh, an RE consultant and former director of NIWE, says, “Unlike diesel generators, these mini-grids generate power when the solar and wind resources are available and so they need an energy storage system which is expensive.”

Kerketta opines that the blended finance model they follow works well, though it took the company seven years to break even – the Covid-19 pandemic having slowed things down.

She points out that there is a huge need for energy. “The investment required is so huge that the government alone cannot fulfil that need. If we show that the commercial model is viable, private investment will flow,” she says.

As for the government, there is lack of coordination between agencies.

“The state’s tribal welfare department built houses in Cherukkalparai village a year ago and gave motorised sewing machines to the women so they could earn. But there’s no power connection. How will they earn,” questions Nanjappan.

Kerketta’s affirmation that “mini-grid as a technology is about providing reliable, affordable energy,” is a possible solution and answer to Nanjappan’s question.

(Sharada Balasubramanian and Jency Samuel are independent journalists based in Coimbatore and Chennai respectively).

(This story has been produced with the support of Earth Journalism Network Renewable Energy Media Fellowship 2024.)