As Americans hear repeated stories in the media about the promise of renewable energy, it is important to review the success or failure of similar programs being rolled out in other laboratories. Some may be familiar with the implosion of affordable electricity in Europe as they seek to pursue net-zero goals embraced by the Biden administration. Problems abound in other areas, as well, including the recent publicized failure of a system in India that was heralded just a few years ago.
Greenpeace brought solar power to Dharnai, India, in 2014, constructing a renewable micro-grid that would supposedly make the tiny village “energy independent” and be a model for the rest of the country. Consumers in the West were regaled with stories of this novel concept at the time. Now, the solar micro-grid is defunct and being used as a cattle shed.
The Dharnai project is one of many failed attempts by groups, like Greenpeace, to force renewable energy on the developing world. Similar projects failed in Africa.
The batteries the systems require wear out and are not repaired because the developing world does not have the expertise to repair them. With no maintenance and a high tariff for the electricity, Dharnai lost trust in the solar project and switched to thermal power (fueled by coal) as soon as it became available on the grid beginning in 2016.
The Dharnai Solar Project
In 2014, Dharnai in Bihar, India declared itself energy-independent due to Greenpeace’s solar-powered micro-grid. The 100 kilowatt micro-grid provided electricity to more than 2200 people in Dharnai village—400 households and 50 commercial establishments, but 8 years later it was defunct. The grid included 70 kilowatts for electricity generation and 30 kilowatts for 10 solar powered water pumping systems of three horsepower each. The 100 kilowatts powered 60 street lights, two schools, one health center, one Kisan Training Center and 50 commercial establishments.
Once the solar micro-grid was operating, the villagers received warnings to not use high power electrical appliances like televisions, refrigerators, motors and other such appliances. It can power only expensive energy-efficient appliances, such as CFL bulbs. A CFL bulb in India costs 700 rupees ($10), while an incandescent bulb costs 10 rupees (15 cents). Besides being limited on appliance use, the solar energy tariff was also higher compared to thermal power, which the village obtained two years after the solar power project was set up. (Solar power cost 9 rupees per kilowatt hour while conventional (thermal) energy was at a rate of 3 rupees per kilowatt hour.) With the penetration of thermal power, villagers could use high voltage electrical appliances as the western members and supporters of Greenpeace enjoy.
Three years after the solar project inauguration, the solar mini-grid started collapsing. After three years the batteries were exhausted and the grid was not repaired. While the solar rooftops, CCTV cameras and other infrastructure are intact, the whole system has become a showpiece. No villager in Dharnai uses solar power anymore. The only solar remaining are a few pumps that Greenpeace allows farmers to use free for irrigation that are only used in daylight without the need for battery back-up.
The whole experiment for the village was summed up by a local who said, “In the first three years, it worked well and people were using it. But after three years the batteries were exhausted and it was never repaired. So now, while the solar rooftops, CCTV cameras, and other infrastructure are intact, the whole system has become a showpiece for us. No one uses solar power anymore here. The glory of Dharnai has ended,” Ravi Kumar, a shopkeeper from the village, told Mongabay-India while pointing towards the installed infrastructure.
The Dhnarai project failed because of the high prices associated with solar power and the grid’s unreliability. Villagers were warned not to use high-power appliances like televisions and refrigerators. When solar projects like that in Dharnai are initiated, the developers do not mention how sustainable the energy is, its longevity and what happens when the technologies age, or how much of the demand the project could meet.
When Dharnai was connected to the region’s coal-powered grid in 2016, villagers had access to a much cheaper and more reliable power source that allowed them to use high-powered appliances.
The Dharnai experience should be a warning to others. While developed countries may have the expertise to keep the system operational, the cost in Dharnai was 3 times that of reliable coal power.