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Bridging the energy gap: How DRE empowers women

June 29, 2023
tags:#India, #women, #renewable energy
by:Rishabh Jain, Sutapa Baksi
The use of decentralised renewable energy (DRE) is transforming the lives of women in rural India. Here's how.

For Kuni Dehury, a 35-year-old resident of Kardapal - a secluded tribal village in the Indian state of Odisha's Keonjhar District, solar reeling machines came as a major blessing. Due to the village's limited access to electricity, women in her community were compelled to manually reel silk threads as their sole source of income, enduring arduous and prolonged work hours. 

Their economic hardship has been further exacerbated by the climate crisis, which affects women disproportionately. According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 80 percent of the people displaced by climate-related events are women. In India, as well as in other places, extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, affect women's livelihoods as they are heavily involved in agriculture, water collection and fuel gathering.

The report further highlighted that women often lack access to resources and decision-making power, making it harder for them to adapt and respond to climate change.

But things began to change for women in the area when they were introduced to solar reeling machines during a local demonstration organised by the Handlooms, Textile, and Handicrafts Department of Odisha back in 2015. With this machine, which was provided by the state, women no longer had to rely on inconsistent electricity supply and their silk-reeling process grew more efficient, enabling them to work faster.

A research conducted in 2011 revealed that the use of solar reeling machines leads to a 1.5 times higher yield compared to electric ones. This significant increase in productivity is accompanied by the added advantage of utilising solar energy, which makes the machines cost-effective as there is little to no expenditure on electricity bills. This advancement has resulted in improved incomes and savings for women, offering them a steady and sustainable source of revenue.

According to data provided by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CeeW), users whose baseline income was USD 732 saw an annual increase of USD 440.

Dehury works as a master reeler and weaver at Bhagamunda Silk Park, a state-owned department of the textile and handloom industry of Odisha.

"In our establishment, we possess approximately 250 reeling machines that not only showcase technological advancements but also operate using solar energy," she told FairPlanet. "This approach significantly reduces electricity expenses and proves to be more lucrative when compared to the conventional method of silk reeling using the thigh."

She added, "Currently, I strive to encourage more women to join me in the silk reeling process. I want to stress that it can be effectively balanced with other household responsibilities."

Anita Devi, a 36-year-old farmer residing in Jharkhand State, had a similar experience. She relied on an oil-based pump to irrigate her fields, resulting in an annual expenditure of more than Rs 10,000 (USD 150) on irrigation alone. This made it difficult for her to engage in sustainable farming practices.

But in 2020, Devi made a pivotal investment by allocating a significant portion of her income to purchase a solar-powered irrigation pump. With the assistance of a self-help group that offered her funds at a zero rate of interest, she took a leap of faith. Little did she know, this decision would prove to be highly lucrative, resulting in substantial profits for her.

Previously reliant on a diesel-powered pump, Devi experienced the financial burden of high fuel costs, as diesel prices continued to rise. But since transitioning to a solar-powered pump, she has been able to eliminate those expenses and save a significant amount of money. This newfound savings has not only reduced her financial burden but also increased her overall profitability. With lower investment costs, Devi now maximises her profits from agricultural produce and saves approximately USD 150 annually. 

More than 20 women currently work under Devi, who provides them with training on how to use solar pumps for maximum productivity.

"This additional income has enabled me to provide education to my children," she told FairPlanet. "I have also become a source of inspiration as a few other women from my neighbourhood have approached me for the same. I actively assist others in optimising the operation of their solar pumps, enabling them to achieve enhanced efficiency and productivity."

The technology has already been adopted in UP, Odisha and Jharkhand. 

Women Leading DRE Adoption

India has made significant strides in promoting livelihood-enhancing decentralised renewable energy (DRE) technologies, with 547,380 such systems installed across 19 states to date, impacting roughly 566,827 people's incomes. These include a range of technologies like solar pumps, solar reeling machines, cold storage units and more. Notably, a substantial 74 percent of users benefiting from these technologies are female, while the remaining 26 percent are male.

The gender distribution can be attributed to the fact that certain DRE technologies, such as solar reeling machines, solar pumps and cold storage units, are predominantly utilised by women.

Numerous public initiatives have been launched to facilitate women's access to financing these technologies. One such example is the Rajasthan Grameen programme Aajeevika Vikas Parishad (Rajeevika), which offers financial support to end-users in Rajasthan. Through this program, women can purchase DRE refrigerators with a 50 percent subsidy and 50 percent credit assistance from Rajeevika during the initial two months of the support programme.

Additionally, women have formed various self-help groups that provide loans without collateral and at minimal or zero interest rates. These schemes may differ across states, catering to the specific needs and requirements of the communities.

Immense potential

According to Dr Ravindra Khaiwal, professor of environmental health at PGIMER University in Chandigarh, distributive renewable energy refers to decentralised energy systems that generate electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass and small-scale hydro. It is a promising alternative to centralised power generation and distribution, which is often plagued by transmission losses and limited access in remote areas.

"Distributive renewable energy plays a pivotal role in extending energy access to remote and underserved areas," Dr Khaiwal told FairPlanet. "By bypassing the need for extensive transmission infrastructure, these decentralised systems provide reliable electricity directly to communities, schools, hospitals and businesses, empowering them to thrive and improve their quality of life."

The professsor called attention to the fact that India has set ambitious goals to achieve net-zero emissions, signaling its commitment to combatting climate change. The country aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 as stated in the Long-Term Low Carbon Development Strategy.

Additionally, India has set an interim target of reducing its emission intensity by 33-35 percent by 2030 compared to its 2005 levels as part of its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.

According to Dr Kahiwal, DREs play a crucial role in achieving India's strategic objectives of rural electrification and sustainable development. He highlights the immense potential of this technology in India's diverse geography, which can lead to significant benefits such as job creation and economic growth in rural areas where employment opportunities are limited.

Impacting Livelihood, Providing Opportunities

A recent study released by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CeeW) has found that the utilisation of DRE-powered technologies presents a substantial market opportunity, exceeding $50 billion (equivalent to INR 4 lakh crores). These technologies, the study points out, have the potential to empower marginalised communities in India by creating resilient and sustainable livelihood opportunities.

The researchers further found that DREs like solar silk reeling and spinning machines, along with micro solar pumps, were predominantly utilised by women, accounting for 92 percent and 65 percent of users, respectively. Therefore, they argue, these technologies play a crucial role in generating sustainable incomes for women while simultaneously enhancing productivity in these specific tasks.

The promotion of DREs in India involves a collaborative effort from both the government and the private sector. The government has implemented initiatives such as the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha Evam Utthan Mahabhiyan (PM KUSUM) scheme, which provides upfront capital support to encourage the installation of solar water pumps. At the same time, the private sector has also made substantial contributions to advancing DRE adoption.

One example is the Jharkhand Opportunities for Harnessing Rural Growth (JOHAR), a collaborative project by the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) and the World Bank aimed at assisting tribal women self-help group (SHG) farmers in cultivating high-value crops.

As part of the initiative, female farmers are provided with subsidised 5-7.5 horse power (HP) solar pumps. The JOHAR team members have reported that over 1,000 solar pumps have already been installed, and stated that the project's goal is to a install more than 3,000 pumps by 2023.

The impact of JOHAR has been significant, benefiting over 200,000 households through capacity building and training on finance and other related topics for women farmers representing 19 Farmer Producer Companies (FPCs) and over 3,800 producer groups.

However, there exist certain limitations and challenges when it comes to the widespread implementation of DRE technologies.

Limitations in Implementing DREs

"The upfront costs of setting up renewable energy systems can be a barrier to widespread adoption," Dr Khaiwal said. "Although the prices of solar panels and other components have decreased significantly in recent years, the initial investment is still beyond the reach of many rural communities. Government incentives and financing options are crucial to making these technologies affordable and accessible."

He further added that rural areas often lack the necessary technical expertise and infrastructure for the deployment and maintenance of renewable energy systems, arguing that local capacity-building through training programmes and ensuring adequate infrastructure support are critical for successful implementation.

It appears to be the consensus among experts that the effective use of renewable energy has the potential to bring transformative changes across industries in India. According to estimates by CeeW, the use of DRE technologies has resulted in an income increase for a significant 71 percent of surveyed users. On average, users with a baseline income of INR 80,000 experienced a typical increase of 35 percent.

Experts further highlight that DRE technologies are crucial for unlocking the growth potential and economic empowerment of women in India's underserved regions. The CeeW also reveals that among women users of DRE, a significant 89 percent reported increased participation in community events, while 92 percent reported an increase in relevant knowledge and skills.

Image by VD Photography.

Article written by:
Rishabh Jain
Sutapa Baksi
Embed from Getty Images
Due to limited access to electricity, women in rural India were compelled to manually reel silk threads, enduring arduous and prolonged work hours.
Embed from Getty Images
Solar reeling machines were introduced at a local demonstration organised by the Handlooms, Textile, and Handicrafts Department of Odisha in 2015.
Embed from Getty Images
"Distributive renewable energy plays a pivotal role in extending energy access to remote and underserved areas."