India Needs to Leapfrog to Solar and Electricity 2.0

In 1991 India had 5 million phones. In May 2012 the country had 960 million phones and the country was adding 8 million new phones per month! (1)

I thought of this policy success story right after India’s power grid collapsed last week leaving more than a billion people without access to grid power. Six hundred million were affected by the blackout plus more than half a billion who have never had access to the grid. (2)

Portable Solar PV - San Francisco (Copyright @2010 by Tony Seba)

Portable Solar PV – San Francisco (Copyright @2010 by Tony Seba)

What India’s leadership did in 1991 was to pass new legislation to break up the old monolithic, centralized, and inefficient telecom industry with the aim to provide telecommunications for all. In less than two decades India’s phone usage has gone from about 0.05% to 80% of the population, a stunning 19,100% growth, turning India into the second largest telecom market in the world.

In 2012 India’s leadership has the opportunity to end the country’s power crisis and provide electricity for all.

Centralized Architecture of Energy

The centralized electricity model consisting of large coal or hydro power plants ‘out there’ delivering one-way power to passive consumers is already obsolete. This grid infrastructure is similar to the old landline telephone model: centralized, monolithic, inefficient and undemocratic. The only way for India to provide communications access to every citizen was to leapfrog the landline model and go straight into a grid-independent mobile phone infrastructure. Now India has a historic opportunity to leapfrog to a reliable, secure, and democratic energy future.

The solution to India’s power crisis is simple: the country needs a distributed power infrastructure based on grid-independent as well as grid-tied solar technologies.

Here are some of the main elements of India’s solar electricity 2.0:

1) Residential and Commercial Solar Power

Like mobile telephones, solar power is the only technology that can provide grid-independent power. Solar can generate power at any scale: residential, commercial, industrial, island, village, and utility scale. At the smaller scales solar photovoltaic technologies can provide families and businesses with ready power while decreasing usage of the existing grid. Germany already has one million grid-connected solar installations. While this constitutes just 3% of the country’s capacity it has generated up to one half of the country’s power on sunny afternoons. And Germany is planning to triple solar capacity by 2020. Thus it just eight years this northern country with half the solar radiation of India will generate 100% of its power from the sun on clear afternoons.

Businesses can’t afford to be without power even for a few hours. Walmart, for instance, has recently announced that 75% of their stores in California will go solar.(3)

It takes hours to days to install a residential or commercial power plant. A solar distributed power infrastructure can be built quickly and painlessly to give a large number of individuals and businesses better access to electricity while relieving grid congestion.

2) Industrial Solar Power

Most industrial energy is used in process heat. In Europe, for instance, two thirds of all energy used in industry is used in process heat.(2) Concentrating solar power can be a great way to generate hot water for industrial heat applications. In my book ‘Solar Trillions’ I give several examples including data centers, pharmaceuticals and potato chip production. FritoLay™ uses solar energy to make its SunChips™ product line in Modesto, California. Industrial process heat from solar is generated onsite (using parking lots, brown-fields, or even rooftops) – thus decreasing the strain on the grid from industrial energy use.

Data centers can also benefit from point-of-use solar energy generation. Apple Computers has announced that their new massive data center in North Carolina will draw sixty percent of its power from onsite generation including a 20 MW solar photovoltaic power plant.(4)

3) Utility Scale Solar

Onsite generation can take huge loads off the grid. However, the country will still need to provide baseload and intermediate electricity later in the afternoon and in the evening. At larger scales, concentrating solar power already generates baseload and intermediate electricity. Last year I went to Spain to cover the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant, which is based on power tower technology. The United States is also developing a fleet of large power towers in California and Nevada with intermediate and baseload capabilities.

4) Distributed Grid Architecture

Distributed architectures are inherently more reliable than centralized networks. The evolution of the computing infrastructure provides a case in point. In the old days (three decades ago) computing power was mainly provided by centralized mainframes – while consumers waited patiently for information. Now computing power is provided by cell phones, tablets, personal computers, servers, and large data centers – all connected by the ultimate decentralized network: the Internet.

A centralized network has one or many points of failure. The United States is no immune to this inherent architectural weakness. In 2003 a tree fell on a transmission tower in Ohio which caused a ripple effect that left 50 million people without power. This blackout affected the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States from Boston to New York to Florida.(5)

A well-designed distributed network has no single point of failure. Even if the whole state of Ohio were without Internet (which is not likely since it’s a distributed architecture), the rest of us would still be able to use email and access the web.

5) Water is Energy

Water is energy and energy is water. We need water to generate energy and we need energy to transport, clean, and pump water. Ignoring the water issue in the energy conversation is an invitation to failed energy policies. India is going through a multi-year drought, which has pushed the country into a vicious water-energy crisis. Coal, which provides more than half of India’s power is a major consumer of water. The long-term drought has prompted Indians to dig deeper into the depleting aquifers, thus increasing water pump power consumption, which requires more coal power, which consumes vast amounts of water, which exacerbates this vicious cycle of drought.

Gemasolar Solar Power Tower uses only Rainwater to generate Baseload Electricity

Solar PV power plants need no water to generate electricity (and negligible amounts for washing the panels.) Because they use steam to run a turbine CSP plants do need water to generate electricity but with dry cooling they can decrease water usage by about 90 percent. Furthermore, power plants can be built with water stewardship in mind. Gemasolar, the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant draws no water from aquifers or the municipal water system. This solar power tower plant was designed to store its own rainwater in two large pools for later usage.

6) Off-Grid solar home systems

There are half a billion people who live in half million villages in India who have no access to the power.(2) This population relies on diesel, kerosene, or firewood for their energy needs. They pay up to $2 per kWh for this energy – which is more than ten times the cost of unsubsidized solar. Not having access to reliable and inexpensive power can also keep whole populations in a never-ending poverty cycle.

The good news is that just like this population leapt into mobile telephony without having to go through the landline model they can leap to solar and electricity 2.0 without having to go through the century-old centralized landline electricity model.

There are two ways to quickly provide power to the off-grid population. The first one is by providing solar home systems. Grameen Shakti has brought power to more than five hundred thousand homes in Bangladesh thus proving that the poorest of the poor will pay for access to solar electricity when it is provided with the right financing mechanism.

The other way to provide off-grid villages with power is by building island-scale or village-scale micro-grids.

7) Microgrids.

Villages and islands can build microgrids consisting of solar energy, energy storage, and smart grid technology to manage power generation, load balancing, and payments. The island nation of Tokelau is an example of what this architecture can do. Consisting of 3 atolls in the South Pacific, Tokelau is getting ready to announce that they are the world’s first nation powered 100% by solar energy. Tokelau went from all diesel to all solar in just 1 year. They now have reliable, secure, and clean energy at a much lower cost than the old dirty diesel infrastructure.(6)

There are many other important technologies that India could use today and develop for the future: solar water desalination, solar air conditioning, solar water heating, power electronics, power trading, payments, and many other smart grid infrastructure technologies. India’s entrepreneurs stand to create trillions of dollars in wealth for the country while helping to take its energy infrastructure to the next level.

The Future of Energy in India

In 1991 India decided to leapfrog the obsolete landline telephone model in order to provide telecommunications for all. Because of this policy choice nearly one billion Indians enjoy access to state of the art telephones today. Once again, India has an historic opportunity to leapfrog an obsolete energy architecture and build a reliable, democratic, secure, and clean energy future.

What will India choose?



(1) “Communications in India”, Wikipedia,

(2) Tony Seba, “Solar Trillions. – 7 Market and Investement Opportunities in the Emerging Clean-Energy Economy”,

(3) “Walmart and SolarCity today announce plan to install solar panels on up to 60 additional stores in California”, SolarCity press release,

(4) “Apple and the Environment – Data Centers and Renewable Energy”, Apple website:

(5) “The 2003 Northeast Blackout–Five Years Later”, Scientific American, August 13, 2008,

(6) “Tokelau Will Be World’s First 100% Solar Powered Nation by September“, August 1, 2012,

3 replies
  1. Dustin Muscato
    Dustin Muscato says:

    Hello Tony,
    Fantastic article! There are many different aspects I could comment on, but I’d like to comment in relation to distributed generation and enhancing the grid to make DG much more ubiquitous. As a new power engineer, my attention goes both macro and micro on this subject and I believe that SERIOUS effort on “smart grid” deployment (synchrophasors in particular, but a lot more than that) is a crucial element and deployment of DG / Smart Grid side by side is part of the magic formula. This is obviously a major part of developing micro grids for real. I am wrapping up my degree right now and am currently in the beginning stages of designing a complete micro-grid. I believe that strategically developing micro grids IS the future and feel this is a very sensible path to take, as compared with all of the options on the table. But driving it to happen and being part of the push is what I am talking about. I am a big fan of utility scale solar (concentrated and thermal in particular). On the smaller scale, I know at least one issue that we have in the North East is that the utilities don’t have the resources to keep up with all of the permitting and interconnection studies that need to get done. At least that is what I have been told by an engineer at National Grid.
    It would be great to open a dialogue with you on the subject of deployment of what your article discusses on a wider scale here in the US.
    Thanks for communicating!
    Dustin Muscato

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