How India took the lead in decentralising electricity through rural off-grid solar panels

Sustainable Leaders | Asia

By Isobel O’Loughlin, Freelance Writer

Published June 8th, 2022

The transition to clean energy has been taking precedence in the efforts to reduce carbon emissions and alleviate poverty. India has been at the forefront of off-grid solar power, against a backdrop of narratives on rural poverty, climate change and sustainable development.

Goal 7 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’. As of 2020, 733 million people are estimated to lack access to electricity, with the majority of these people living in the Global South.

Meenakshi Dewan, one of four women in her village trained in solar power engineering, carrying out maintenance work on off-grid solar-powered street lighting in the rural village of Tinginaput, India. | Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / UK Department for International Development

The proportion of global energy from renewable sources is only 17.7% (as of 2019), with the use of fossil fuels continuing to contribute to further climate change. To meet the terms of this Sustainable Development Goal by 2030, a combination of technological innovation and political action is required.

The rapid electrification and adoption of Decentralised Renewable Energy (DRE) in India provides a powerful example as to how this could be done. Understanding the process of innovating and implementing renewable energy, in the context of the political landscape over the past four decades, provides a valuable case study for ending energy poverty in the Global South.

In 2018, the Prime Minister of India claimed that the country had achieved 100% village electrification, a feat achieved through a combination of grid extension and off-grid solar power. Although, it is important to note that this access is not reliable for many households. By 2018, DRE was already estimated to provide electricity to 133 million people globally.

‘By 2018, DRE was already estimated to provide electricity to 133 million people globally.’

This is a particularly effective solution for remote areas which would face difficulties in connecting to a national grid. DRE is proposed to be the most cost-effective technology to provide electricity to around 70% of rural communities worldwide. Technologies, such as off-grid solar, therefore have the potential to increase access to affordable, clean energy.

A recent study charted the development of off-grid solar power in India over the past four decades. The authors described the narratives driving change across the levels of the niche (local communities and private enterprises), regime (local and national governments) and landscape (the political and historical context).

Contrary to the conventional order of events found in the Global North, the innovation of off-grid solar power was primarily driven at the level of the regime. The national government created the opportunity for initial research into novel technologies in research and development laboratories before the sector expanded.

A solar engineering trainer in Tilonia, India participating in a 2011 UN Women programme to train other women. | Gaganjit Singh / UN Women

Throughout the four decades over which off-grid solar power was adopted in India, the international political context has driven both national policies and community acceptance. In the 1980s, in the aftermath of the oil shock, a global energy crisis ensued, paired with a growing awareness of human impacts on the environment.

In India, energy supplies had been inconsistent throughout the 1970s, with shortages of firewood, low levels of electrification and kerosene providing lighting for roughly three-quarters of the population. The narrative surrounding energy insecurity spurred the government to fund experimentation into alternative technologies.

In the 1990s, there was an increasing focus on global sustainable development, with new programs created to support developing countries. This increased the importance of NGOs in financing community projects, and international bodies for subsidising and creating new renewable energy projects. India, in particular, was identified for its potential to implement decentralised solar power, due to the past decade of research into energy provision aiming to alleviate rural poverty on a large scale.

‘India, in particular, was identified for its potential to implement decentralised solar power.’

Between 1996 and 2006, India received $52.6 million for the development of off-grid technologies by international actors including the US Department of Energy, the UNDP, and initiatives by the World Bank. Therefore, funding from international organisations played an important role in scaling up off-grid solar power technologies across rural India.

As the industry progressed, the private sector exerted a greater influence on the development of off-grid solar. Private and social enterprises were set up, providing solar home systems, solar-powered lanterns, and micro-grids. Barriers to entry for entrepreneurs were low, with investments and grants easily accessible.

This was against the political backdrop of the new Millennium Development Goals—the result of a growing awareness of the connection between climate change impacts and global poverty. Much of rural India still faced energy poverty, so their electrification policy was reformed by the national government, whilst projects were often funded by international bodies aiming to alleviate poverty and aid the transition to renewable energy.

Four women trained in solar engineering in Tinginaput, India (in 2009). The use of this off-grid solar technology enabled access to clean energy in a remote village. | Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / UK Department for International Development

In the 2010s, the emphasis on sustainable development became central to energy narratives, pushing its precedence higher in the national political agenda. This was primarily a result of global attention to the UN SDGs and the Paris Agreement, which India signed onto in 2015; India pledged to increase their non-fossil fuel energy capacity from 28% to 40% by 2030.

In the face of these ambitious targets, the focus of the government has shifted away from universal village electrification (a target met in 2018) to large-scale renewable projects. However, the development and deployment of off-grid solar technologies have continued to be successful in the private sector. Between 2017 and 2018, 5.29 million off-grid solar products were estimated to be deployed. This growth in the market and technological innovations by Indian businesses has attracted investors, including the Shell Corporation.

The progress of off-grid solar power in India provides lessons for the implementation of similar technologies in other countries. Narratives surrounding the need for decentralised renewable energy have been shown to drive government policy, the involvement of international bodies and decisions by local enterprises.

‘Between 2017 and 2018, 5.29 million off-grid solar products were estimated to be deployed.’

Discourses on improving energy security initially drove the development of off-grid solar power in India. However, international funding and wide-scale deployment were then primarily influenced by the potential of this technology to both reduce poverty and cut greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, progress in the sector has been driven by private enterprise, as well as the recognition of its profitability.

The way one frames notions surrounding energy influences how governments respond to the climate crisis and are required for an effective cohesion between policymakers, NGOs, enterprises, and local communities.

India demonstrates that initial funding from the government and international bodies can successfully lead to a viable and profitable private sector for renewable energy. This suggests that encouraging entrepreneurship and subsidising local green businesses may be a potential route for other developing countries to simultaneously reduce emissions and alleviate poverty.

Featured Image: Abbie Trayler-Smith | Panos Pictures / UK Department for International Development

CLEAN (2018) ‘State of the Decentralized Renewable Energy Sector in India.’ Clean Energy Access Network. Available at:,%20CEEW_State-of-the-Decentralized-Renewable-Energy-Sector-in-India_Feb%202022.pdf [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

IEA (2018) ‘World Energy Outlook.’ International Energy Agency. Available at: [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

Independent Evaluation Group (2016) ‘Reliable and Affordable Off-Grid Electricity Services for the Poor: Lessons from the World Bank Group Experience.’ World Bank. Available at: [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

IRENA (2018) ‘Policies and Regulations for Renewable Energy Mini-Grids.’ International Renewable Energy Agency. Available at: [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

Murphy B. and Daly H. (2018) ‘Electricity in every village in India’ International Energy Agency. Available at: [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

Rajagopalan S., and Breetz H. L. (2022) Niches, narratives, and national policy: How India developed off-grid solar for rural electrification. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions. Volume 43, pages 41-54.

United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015) ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’ United Nations: New York. Available at: [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2022) ‘Report of the Secretary-General, Progress Towards Sustainable Development Goals.’ United Nations: New York. Available at: [Accessed May 27th, 2022]

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