University of Pittsburgh
May 17, 2017

New Study Shows Solar Power’s Potential and Limits in India


Katie Fike


PITTSBURGH—In an effort to improve access to electricity in India, where an estimated 244 million people do not have electricity, a team with Pitt ties looked at how solar microgrids could play a role in increasing energy access — and whether doing so would affect household behaviors. The findings are featured in the latest issue of Science Advances.

Assistant professor in the Department of Political Science Michaël Aklin and a multidisciplinary research team partnered with Indian solar service provider Mera Gao Power (MGP) to conduct a first-of-its-kind analysis of the effects of installing solar microgrids in 81 nonelectrified villages in north-central India. A microgrid is a small, independent electricity network, often powered by renewable sources such as solar or wind.Michaël Aklin

Initially, the households in the study area — the Barabanki district of the state of Uttar Pradesh — had no electricity and used kerosene lamps to light their homes. The team, which included researchers from the University of Glasgow, Columbia University and New York University, randomly assigned the villages into treatment and control groups. In the treatment group, MGP approached villagers and offered to set up a solar microgrid if at least 10 households within the village subscribed at the monthly per-household cost of 100 rupees ($1.67). MGP made no intervention in the control group.

The solar microgrid offered a basic level of electricity access: domestic lighting through two LED lights and mobile charging capability. Researchers collected information on fuel expenditures, lighting hours, quality of lighting and broader socio-economic effects from 1,281 households surveyed on three occasions over a period of more than a year — prior to treatment, a half a year after treatment and one year after treatment.

Researchers found that while the quality of light increased in electrified households, no evidence suggested that subscribing to MGP had broader socio-economic impacts on household savings, expenditures, local business creation, time spent by women on productive work or children’s use of lighting to study.

“The findings underscore both the potential and limitations of providing minimal electricity access through off-grid solar power,” said Aklin. “It is notable that an inexpensive, business-driven intervention without any state subsidies can have such a positive effect on the quality of lighting in previously nonelectrified villages. Because MGP offers electricity at night, the service serves households at hours when demand peaks and electricity access is generally the weakest.”

Patrick Bayer, another member of the research team who is from the University of Glasgow in Scotland said, “At the same time, the lack of broader effects, aside from better lighting and lower kerosene expenditures, underscores the limits of minimal solar microgrids. Electrification programs that rely on off-grid technologies must consider the trade-offs between the complexity, the costs and the benefits of these systems. Our findings do not imply that larger systems cannot produce broader socio-economic benefits, but generating such benefits may require more expensive solutions.”

Funding for the study was provided by the India Central Programme of the International Growth Centre, the Tata Center for Technology and Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Smart Power India.