How Small Renewable Systems Aid Job Creation In Rural India

In 2021, the decentralised renewable energy sector employed more than 80,000 workers, says Power For All.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>A female solar engineer cleans the a PV panel in Tinginaput village. (Photo: Abbie Trayler Smith/UK Department for International Development)</p></div>
A female solar engineer cleans the a PV panel in Tinginaput village. (Photo: Abbie Trayler Smith/UK Department for International Development)

Smaller, off-grid renewable energy systems outscore large solar or wind farms in rural India for building energy sufficiency. There's one more reason: jobs.

In 2021, the decentralised renewable energy sector employed more than 80,000 workers, according to international think tank 'Power For All'. And despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the sector's employment numbers have remained resilient.

DRE jobs fell only a 2.5% during the pandemic. By comparison, the broader renewable energy industry witnessed a 48% decline. Small renewable systems also had a much higher level of formal employment at 77%. Similar data is not available for the renewable sector but the share of formal jobs in India, according to EPFO, stood at 41% in FY22.

Decentralised renewable solutions are localised systems where energy is produced close to the source of consumption. This could include small-scale solar setups to power homes, farms and health centres in rural areas that often face frequent power cuts.

According to Power For All, DRE offers a chance to create more jobs per megawatt of energy addition. And such systems can help lower-income states achieve some of their sustainable development goals by ensuring cheap access to power.

"It is a small sector which is already creating so many jobs," Debanjana Choudhari, country director for Power For All, told BQ Prime. "If we can give it the right push and fix the skill gap, then this sector can boost rural employment."

India's push for renewable adoption so far has been focused on large grid-connected utility scale projects. According to the Climate Policy Initiative, the country requires ten times more annual investment in DRE by 2024 to meet its renewable goals.

The PM-KUSUM to PM-Saubhagya schemes are all aimed towards increasing DRE adoption and universal electricity access. But on-ground implementation and awareness remains lacking.

Choudhari said a nationwide awareness campaign is needed make people understand the benefits of adoption DRE. It includes helping farmers move away from using costly diesel generators to irrigate their fields or public health centres having electricity through the day to make sure medical equipment is functional and vaccines that need to be stored at a certain temperature do not go unused.

That, in turn could, boost rural employment and allow people to earn livelihoods without having to move to city.

"A lot of the times DRE companies have to send someone from the city to install or repair components," she said. If those in rural areas are trained with the technical knowledge of how to manage and operate these systems, then there's a huge opportunity there, she said.

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj, that governs local civic bodies, can push for collaboration between the rural citizens and companies to improve adoption while creating jobs, she said.

Edited excerpts of the interaction with Power For All's Debanjana Choudhari:

How can decentralised renewable energy help provide quality jobs while improving rural livelihoods?

Debanjana Choudhari: DRE has a lot of potential. Like in agriculture, it can help in reducing the drudgery, especially for small and marginal farmers.. For public or community health centres, it can ensure that the healthcare facility in rural areas can function almost round the clock.

In summers in Jharkhand, our focus state, there were around 15-16 hours of power cut. And most of these were happening during the day. And it is a problem in both agriculture and health.

In agriculture, when we spoke to farmers, they said we have to depend on diesel generator sets as DRE solutions are not readily available. Because there's low penetration in agriculture of DRE.

Ending energy poverty and having a just transition is a priority for us.

Every year, thousands of people are graduating for technical institutes. But where are they being absorbed? The jobs are still concentrated in urban or peri-urban areas.

If there is a DRE solution in the rural area, our experience shows that most of the time they have to send someone from the city to get something fixed.

It is a small sector which is already creating so many jobs. If we can give it the right push and fix the skill gap, then this sector can be one that creates a lot of employment.

What is the nature of jobs for those involved in DRE sector?

The survey of our scope had pico solar, solar home systems, standalone commercial and industrial solar, and mini-grid systems.

There are jobs available at an organisation and administration level. Then there are those where vocational and mechanical training is required. There's of course a lot of roles in marketing DRE solutions and getting them to the last mile.

For hands-on work, you need technical training to repair wear and tear. You need understanding on installation of solar panels and components.

That necessitates skilling the employees to be able to work on such solutions. Where are we on that?

Upskilling is crucial here. Since this is a developing field, there's innovation happening every day. Solar panels today are very different from when they were first introduced.

If you look at entry level jobs, there is a clear need to upskill. But the question is who will do that? Will it be down to the governments or the companies themselves?

We do not have straightforward answers here. Several DRE developers have taken initiatives on upskilling as it is in their interests to do so. Because if any employee leaves, they have to re-train a new one. Which isn't an ideal situation for them.

There'll be a range of skills required. And there's a need to keep yourself updated, whether you are on the field in an installation-level job, or in an office making strategies. It's true to DRE as it is for other sectors too. Upgrading your skillset will always be required. Many of those skills will also be transferrable to other sectors since the green economy is only growing.

The report touches upon women participation in the DRE sector workforce. Can you elaborate more on that?

DRE has the potential to unlock further women participation in the workforce.

But there are certain limitations that have kept women participation low. We've spoken to several companies about it. Because of socio-cultural norms and patriarchy, there are limitations imposed on travel for women. Companies themselves don't feel comfortable putting them in hardship areas.

Many a times those on the field have to end up travelling to rural areas alone. This isn't in a formal office environment. While there is a lot of potential, there needs to be creation of safe spaces in order for women to come in.

In India, women participation in DRE is the lowest in the 5 countries we surveyed. But it is also high in some areas, such as clean cooking. But we need more awareness.

In terms of policies, are the current ones enough to continue the momentum of job creation in the space?

The policies are enough if there is reception and a trickle down of what those policies mean.

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj has a huge role in pushing collaboration between firms and rural government bodies. A bottoms-up approach is needed to create consumer demand in these areas. We've already tried the top-down approach but the uptake isn't where it was quite expected to be.

Right now, there's not enough awareness about what these policies mean for an individual farmer or healthcare worker.

It is not any one person's job, nor just the government's or just the company's. It is a stakeholder iniative that can bring about a substantial change.

A 360-degree awareness campaign is very much needed. Not just for mass awareness, but for awareness at the political and policy level.

There are several schemes around DRE, whether it is KUSUM or PM-Saubhagya, but where is the information? It is stuck at the union or state ministry level. And in order to tick boxes, certain states do a very good job bringing in a few EVs and electrifying a few buses and they think that's enough.

States are a major stakeholder in how DRE can impact lives. They also need to show the revenue part of it because ultimately that is what will drive adoption.

How we make that happen is a collaborative partnership approach.


Azman Usmani is a senior correspondent at BQ Prime. He ...more
Get Regular Updates