Encouraging solar energy adoption in rural India

More than 73 million households in remote areas of the world get their electricity not from a conventional utility grid, but rather from sources such as solar lanterns, solar house systems (SHS) that can power several appliances, and local solar-powered microgrids. Such off-grid devices and systems provide life-changing services to people outside of centralized electricity grids and help spread the use of renewable energy. As a result, international aid organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working hard to encourage their adoption.

To accelerate the spread of solar technologies, such organizations need to understand the barriers and incentives for households to adopt them. The researchers assumed that as household incomes rose, people would adopt newer “higher-order” technologies and abandon older, “lower-order” technologies such as those that burn fossil fuels. However, there is clear evidence that in remote locations it is not easy for people to abandon their energy sources – including oil lamps.

What motivates people in remote communities to make the decision to buy and use a particular energy source? What prompts them to choose a specific solar lantern? And why are they clinging to some of their older devices after gaining new sources such as microgrids and even access to the state’s electricity grid?

Three years ago, David Hsu, associate professor of urban and environmental planning and then PhD student Elise Harrington PhD ’20, both from the Department of Town Planning and Planning, set out to investigate these issues in remote villages in India. They knew from preliminary work in the region that many households use different energy sources. If they were to find out what prompted a household to adopt and use certain technologies, they would have to interview the entire decision-making group – a prospect they knew would be a difficult one. In the past, when Hsu and his colleagues knocked on the door asking for interest in the power of the microgrid, a crowd of villagers quickly gathered, the person with the highest status would reply and everyone else nodded. For this study, he and Harrington had to go home, determine what energy systems and devices are present, and then have family members remember – together – how they decided to buy them and possibly abandon previous systems.

The first challenge would be to get in the door. “There are many different social norms that regulate access to private spaces,” says Harrington. “But as a woman I was allowed to enter the living quarters. So I could see with my own eyes the devices, lights and so on that were installed or used. ” In addition, she learned to speak basic Hindi so that she could introduce herself, familiarize herself with devices and ask basic questions.

The second challenge was getting the group to remember decisions made in the past and what motivated them – a process that could be both tedious and confusing. To help, the researchers recruited Ameya Athavankar of twobythree, a company based in Mumbai, India that specializes in developing techniques that use game elements in a variety of applications, from product building and design to marketing research. Athavankar quickly became an integral member of the research team, working on researching and testing possible game formats and field protocols, helping to communicate in Hindi and local dialect, and conducting interviews.

The United Nations recognizes six steps or “levels” in the transition from no electricity to the ability to run high power devices. In their work, Hsu and Harrington chose to focus on switching from not having access to concentrated task lighting and charging the phone (level 1), then moving to general lighting, charging the phone and using devices (level 2). “Moving from kerosene alone to electricity for basic lighting and charging can be a real turning point for households,” says Harrington.

In consultation with a local microgrid company and an NGO with a local office, researchers selected three villages in the Gumla district of Jharkhand, India for research. Two of the villages – Bartoli and Neech Kobja – had access to the state power grid. The third village – Ramda Bhinjpur – had access to a private microgrid, but not to the state network. In these three villages, the team selected a total of 22 households that represented a range of experiences with solar technologies and fuels used for basic home lighting and charging.

The photo below shows the result of using the scientist game protocol in one interview. In the game, the colored playing cards represent the five sources of energy for lighting: the kerosene lantern, solar lantern, SHS, micro-grid, and the state grid. The layout of the cards here shows the choices of respondents across a series of decision points that move from left to right in time. Each column represents the result of one decision, with the cards in the top row representing the “primary sources”, the cards in the second row the “backup sources”, and the cards in the third row the sources that have been eliminated due to lighting.

In this interview, respondents started with a kerosene lantern (green card) – the primary source of light in most households. They then added a black card representing the state grid in the top spot and moved the kerosene lantern down the row, indicating that they kept it in their home “pile” of energy sources but used less. They then added a solar beacon (red) using it in conjunction with the state grid so that both were the primary sources. Then the solar lantern broke – as indicated by a red card with a crossed-out picture. Finally, they added a solar system (orange) which they used along with the state grid, while keeping the oil lighthouse.

Following the same protocol, researchers interviewed 22 households in all three villages. They then summed up the sources listed as primary and backup at each decision point in two groups: households with micro-networks and households connected to the public grid.

Both groups show some marked differences in behavior, starting with the move away from the kerosene lanterns. Households with microgrids moved kerosene lanterns to reserve ones as soon as they had other options available, while the state-owned network group continued to use their kerosene lanterns only gradually moving them to the backup position.

Households in both groups adopted solar lanterns, and many continued to use them as their primary source, even when connected to a microgrid or state grid. One of the reasons cited was that solar lanterns can provide illumination during outdoor activities after dark. Perhaps more importantly, the government’s scheme provided discounts on solar lanterns at schools in all three villages.

SHS were also adopted by both groups. Indeed, many of the microgrid group went directly to the SHS, essentially jumping over the solar lantern option. When the two groups gained access to the grid, their treatment of SHS differed: micro-grid households quickly shifted most of their SHS use to the fallback position, while public grid households continued to use SHS as their primary source.

The researchers point out that these interviews provide insight into household solar energy use patterns: although the sample size may be small, it provides rich qualitative data to understand household decisions. And they observed some interesting trends. For example, when households connected to the microgrid, they often moved their existing sources to the fallback position, using them from time to time to cover the costs of the microgrids.

Conversely, households that gained access to the state’s power grid often added and continued to use both a solar beacon and SHS – even increasing their use over time. Moreover, they continued to use their kerosene lanterns, only gradually moving them to the backup position. The state grid is notoriously unreliable, so people need to maintain good alternatives to use during power cuts.

In order to further investigate what influences the choice of technology, at each stage of the decision, researchers asked why the changes were made. Using a second set of cards, they asked respondents about the possible importance of five factors: awareness, availability and access, capacity, unit price, and quality.

The adoption of each energy technology – and especially SHS and micro-grids – was intended to increase system performance to meet more end-use applications, including additional equipment. People cited prices and payment options as influencing their decision to purchase solar lanterns and SHS. Decisions to connect to the state grid were entirely dependent on access, while the decisions to connect to the solar microgrid were more influenced by the knowledge of the technology.

It is worth noting that shortcomings in the quality of higher-order sources often affected the retention of lower-order sources. As many as 90 percent of respondents cited the ability as influencing their decision to keep the SHS, citing its ability to provide brighter light and greater range than other sources. Solar lanterns have been preserved for their portability and the ability to provide better quality light for study and other indoor activities. Most households have kept kerosene and solar lanterns, as well as SHS, to provide coverage during a state grid or microgrid outage.

Scientists cite several answers as unexpected. For example, when buying SHS, respondents were initially interested in financing – until they found out about interest rates and monthly payments. Overall, respondents said they preferred to pay in cash straight away as their household income varies with the season. Interestingly, in other parts of the world where off-grid solar markets are growing, there are often strong pay-as-you-go solar financing programs.

Even more surprising for Harrington was the discovery that interviewed people tended not to pay attention to guarantees or quality labels when making purchases. “Important efforts are being made in India and around the world that focus on setting technical quality standards and ensuring labeling and certification to convey these quality standards to consumers,” he says. “But we’ve found that what matters to people is a personal relationship with the store owner or the person or organization that introduces them to the solar product.”

Finally, scientists looked at human-supported devices and activities using SHS, microgrids and meshes. They grouped households into three categories by income and compared end uses for these three sources of electricity.

For high- and middle-income groups, the SHS allowed the use of high-powered devices such as fans, televisions, and laptops, as well as cell phones and lighting. Connecting to the state grid or microgrid has enabled these income groups to undertake income-generating ventures such as running a general grocery store or an electronics repair shop. This finding is notable as many aid organizations and microgrid operators emphasize the importance of enabling productive activities while providing electricity to less well-off populations.

For the lowest-income group, SHS provided the first step in accessing electricity – acquiring mobile phones and lighting. But once they were on the state grid, even some of the most financially constrained households could run televisions and fans as well. “Throughout the discussion of the challenges of network reliability and quality, you also see the incredible opportunity this network offers the lowest income in our study,” says Harrington.

The scientists’ findings show the value of introducing SHS and solar lanterns to provide basic lighting and rechargeability before the grid is available. In some cases, supporting the adoption of these technologies is the most cost-effective approach to spreading electrification, at least in the short term.

The study also shows that people buy solar devices and services in response to interactions with people they trust. In one case, a village decided to participate in a micro-net after a well-known NGO organized a trip to see micro-networks in another village. To support off-grid solar energy, more such efforts in terms of education and consumer involvement may be needed.

Finally, the study confirms the value of the card-based interview technique for data collection and subsequent analysis. Taking a picture of the unfolded pages at the end of each interview proved important to remember and then analyze the schedule and key factors influencing the decisions made at each stage. “If we were only to do interviews and transcripts, I don’t think we’d ever understand what the decision-making process was,” says Hsu. “People don’t always remember the order or rationale for their energy intake choices until you give them a way to write down their experiences.”

Scientists also see another potential application of this technique. Establishing a microgrid to provide different levels of service to rural households requires high-level collective decision making. Perhaps some version of their intelligence technique of playing cards could aid this decision-making process by ensuring that each household is heard and gets what it needs from the proposed micro-network.

This research was supported by the Tata Center for Technology and Design MIT, which is part of the MIT Energy Initiative.

This article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Energy Futures, MIT Energy Initiative Magazine.