How rural India’s lights are being switched on

Anmar Frangoul | Special to

With a population of more than 1.2 billion people - spread across the world's seventh-largest country by area - the energy challenges facing India are vast and varied.

More than 300 million people in the country, for instance, lack access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

And while coal, oil and gas play a crucial role in meeting India's energy needs, the country is also investing heavily in the development of solar power.

The authorities are aiming to install 20,000 megawatts (MW) of solar power capacity by 2022 – by contrast, the U.S. had a cumulative solar electric capacity of 13,000 MW in 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

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The construction of vast, sweeping installations - such as the 5,000-acre Gujarat Solar Park, which authorities hope will save eight million tonnes of CO2 a year - highlight the scale of India's ambition. There are concerns, however, that plans to impose anti-dumping duties on overseas products could hit the country's ability to deliver projects on this scale.

Smaller programs, though, are already having a transformative effect on people's lives.

Crumbling infrastructure had left the residents of Dharnai, a rural village in Bihar, eastern India, without electricity for decades. That all changed in March of this year, when Greenpeace set up a 100-kilowatt, solar-powered cluster of micro grids in the village, which has a population of just over 2,000.

Some 70KW of clean, renewable energy will meet domestic needs, with 30KW being set aside for irrigation. Prior to the micro grid, Dharnai relied on diesel generators.

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AjinHari | Moment | Getty Images

"It will give electricity to everybody," Ramapati Kumar, Greenpeace India's campaign manager for renewable energy, told CNBC in a phone interview.

Kumar highlighted that lots of micro grids in India – and elsewhere in the world – only provide electricity for four to five hours per day. "This particular project is unique in the sense that it (offers)… 24/7 electricity," he added.

And it's not just charities like Greenpeace that are working to boost India's renewable energy infrastructure. In Bangalore, Pollinate Energy, an Australian company, sells low-cost, portable solar panels to the city's poor – who have traditionally relied on unhealthy, dangerous kerosene lamps.

These solar panels power LED lamps, and can even charge a mobile phone. To date, the company has installed over 5,600 of their systems.

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Greenpeace's micro-grid project in Dharnai is a test run to see if similar systems can be replicated on a larger scale.

In a short space of time, villagers' lives there had improved, Kumar argued, with more light meaning longer market days and better street lighting, food storage and air conditioning.

"We are dreaming that in time to come this particular project will go a long way to changing the lives of people in Dharnai, and also impacting the overall energy thinking in the state and in the country," Kumar said. "This kind of project has the potential to bring forth a revolutionary change."

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