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May 25, 2012

Sierra Club India: Revolution Brewing in Bihar

Bihar solar pump set

Something's brewing in Bihar. After decades of being India's most notoriously 'backward' state, the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has tempered corruption, built roads and spurred development. Given the impressive achievements of his previous term, it's no surprise he rode to overwhelming victory in recent elections. What is surprising is that his campaign platform consisted of more or less a single promise – to deliver electricity access to the 82% of the over 100 million inhabitants of Bihar who lack it. With little fossil fuel reserves to speak of, Bihar will need to write a blueprint for a clean energy revolution to deliver on that promise.

As Shaibal Gupta, Secretary, of the Asian Development Research Institute puts it, Bihar now requires an infusion of energy to further 'lubricate' the wheels of development. That's putting it lightly. Bihar faces a 30% peak power deficit (highest in the country) due to its paltry 546 megawatts of installed capacity - about the size of one average coal plant. Worse, Bihar loses roughly 38% of the meager amount of energy it produces through transmission and distribution. That’s like taking almost half of this capacity and pouring it down a drain – while you pay for it.

The states chief minister has tried to construct new coal plants to reverse the situation but to no avail. Worse, India's coal crisis is raging, reducing the likelihood that any new coal plant Kumar is able to build will be able to secure coal at affordable rates. Add the lead time for a new coal plant (at least 5-7 years to complete) and it's pretty clear turning to renewable energy is the only way to make good on his campaign pledge.

But these factors can be said to be true for any number of country's still heeding conventional wisdom and dumping billions into failed grid extension efforts powered by heavily polluting coal plants. Which is why Greenpeace India has launched a campaign to push Bihar in the direction of the quickest most promising way to deliver energy access – decentralized clean energy (read their new report here). The campaign is creating the political momentum to catalyze a clean energy revolution building on the pioneering work of entrepreneurs like Husk Power and green light planet.

As a result of the campaign, coupled with the headache of securing coal, the states politicians are seriously considering committing their citizens’ future to clean energy. While that commitment is exciting in and of itself, its significance for the other 1.3 billion people around the world without access to the grid could be tremendous. Bihar has the ability to lay a blueprint for developing countries across the world looking to deliver energy access in the cheapest, fastest, most sustainable way.

For Greenpeace that blueprint consists of scaling up mini grids that can eventually connect to the grid via smart grid technology if, and when, it finally makes its way to rural villages. Individual components like solar home systems can feed into these mini grids supplying power alongside small scale power plants using biomass or hydro creating a balanced set of renewable power options.

The most exciting thing is that this decentralized micro grid pathway is exactly what visionary advocates like Amory Lovins are advocating needs to occur in the United States. But in the US this means a significant change in entrenched industries and existing infrastructure. Bihar on the other hand can build this revolutionary new 'grid' from the bottom-up – getting it right from the start.

As the Bihar campaign gains momentum the world will be looking to Rio+20 as the halfway point of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All campaign. Energy access practitioners have sent a letter to World Bank president Robert Zoellick seeking $500 million to finance an off grid clean energy revolution just like Bihar's in countries around the world. It's now up to institutions like the World Bank and other development finance institutions (DFIs) to catalyze their efforts and make good on universal energy access goals. Ultimately, it may not be much of a stretch to say as Bihar goes, so goes the world.

-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International Program

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