Member Spotlight – April 2017

Clean Energy Access Network (CLEAN)

India needs decentralized clean energy to attain universal energy coverage for its citizens 

The Clean Energy Access Network (CLEAN) was set up in 2014 to fill the need for a dedicated representative body for decentralized clean energy practitioners working to actualize SDG 7, access to modern and sustainable forms of energy, for millions of Indians. At the time of its inception, the official tally of the number of Indians without such access was around 280 million. This number has now dropped to around 217[1] million today. The media was also recently abuzz with news of India’s newfound status as a net energy exporter as well as the recognition conferred to it by the International Energy Agency as an associate member country.

These announcements justifiably point to the stridency of India’s macroeconomic energy vision. However, solely focussing on these achievements runs the risk of ignoring the lived reality of inadequate, unequal access to energy on the ground. Does the steadily decreasing number of people without energy access on paper correspond with a steady increase in energy access at the level of individual households? Although this seems obvious, the parameters used to deem a community electrified preclude such a conclusion. It is a well documented fact that the rural electrification policy of the country requires only 10% of households in a rural community to be connected to the grid for the entire village (including all the households in it) to be checked off from the government’s list. Out of the total number of villages enlisted for “intensification” work to increase this lowly figure from 10% to 100% household coverage, only one third have reported project completion. Even with actual coverage of all households, questions of supply, reliability and quality of energy remain.

Decentralized systems serve many remote areas that remain beyond the purview of the national grid. Photo Credit: CLEAN

The discourse on energy access would be incomplete without reference to the importance of clean cooking energy as a marker of the overall quality of life of a household. While governmental targets to enhance access to clean cooking energy lack the all-encompassing quality that electrification enjoys, the Ujjwala Yojana launched last year seeks to provide initial infrastructure to 50 million households below the national poverty line by 2019. Assuming optimal success in implementation, this would still leave around 100 million households out of the coverage net and in dire need of cooking options beyond the traditional mudstove. Owing to monetary as well as sociocultural factors, millions of households in rural India use more than one fuel or stove to fulfil all their cooking needs even with availability of LPG.

These are the issues that CLEAN is trying to highlight at the highest levels of decisionmaking in the country. Because of their relative economic feasibility, potential to penetrate remote, challenging terrains as well as the persisting problems of quality access, its current bouquet of 110 member organizations spread across the length and breadth of India firmly believe in their continued relevance even in an increasingly centralized national energy supply scenario.

Over the course of two years in which it has been supported by grants from USAID and ICCo Cooperation and by the sector expertise of its impressive roster of founding members including the UN Foundation, CLEAN has taken a technology agnostic approach to direct the spotlight on the work of its member organizations to provide affordable access to energy to individuals and communities that are socioeconomically marginalized. We advocate for a diversified view of energy beyond electricity for lighting and charging and LPG access for cooking to bring attention to a host of commercial or productive applications that would benefit from such small scale systems that largely run on renewable energy. Such end uses include energy for educational institutions, safe drinking water, healthcare, irrigation, refrigeration, food processing and other kinds of local entrepreneurial endeavours.

CLEAN provides 5 broad areas of support to its member organizations who are mostly small or medium enterprises or non-profits, namely:

  • Policy engagement at all levels of decisionmaking
  • Access to different instruments of finance for end users and enterprises
  • Capacity building interventions for technical, managerial and entrepreneurial job roles
  • Technical standardization and support
  • Information exchange and networking opportunities

Our efforts to engage with key policymaking bodies such as the central Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, its state level counterparts and NITI Aayog, the government’s policy advisory and coordination body, have centered on shifting the narrative around “off-grid” systems to bring greater recognition to the truly complementary role they play in relation to large scale government and private sector interventions. Last year, CLEAN was part of a national governmental committee responsible for drafting the national policy to operationalize microgrids and minigrids upto 500 kilowatts. The importance being given by central policymakers to such systems with technical capabilities to interact with the legacy grid is indicative of the fact that the energy systems of the future are going to be decentralized if not always off-grid.

Mr. Suresh Prabhu, Minister of Railways, India affirms the need for decentralized energy at the India Energy Access Summit. Photo credit: CLEAN

This shift in mindset is also imperative to effect greater fund flow to the decentralized clean energy sector. CLEAN has focussed on forging productive partnerships with bankers and microfinance institutions by creating greater awareness around the business models and renewable energy technologies that members operate with. This sensitization has not only led to enterprise financing but has also eased financial access for the end users of such systems. While policy directives around lending for clean energy access have laid out conducive pathways to unlock financing for the sector, actual outflows for energy access need to be monitored against overall allocations and will form a critical part of CLEAN’s agenda to undertake evidence-based advocacy.

CLEAN’s skillbuilding activities so far have directly impacted the competence of human resources employed in member organizations and broadened the knowledge base of training institutions and community based organizations looking to orient themselves to the renewable energy sector. At the apex decisionmaking level, CLEAN has helped the Skill Council for Green Jobs (under the National Skills Development Corporation) develop standardized, industry relevant curriculum and content for the central scheme to promote solar energy professionals in India. We are set to undertake a similar program for other technologies and applications like biomass and microgrids this year.

As we move forward with our agenda to strengthen the private sector for decentralized renewable energy applications and track the progress made by universal governmental policies as well as other  ecosystem enablers like financiers, the end goal will be to maximize the energy service options available to the aspirational Indian consumer.

[1]                Assuming the national average of 4.7 people per household and total number of remaining households to be electrified as per the tracking portal maintained by Rural Electrification Corporation, India,