Island Mini-Grids in West Bengal

The West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (WBREDA), a government agency in India, has created local cooperatives as its partners in mini-grid development. Together with communities, WBREDA has developed 23 mini-grids serving 10,000 customers throughout West Bengal.

Disclaimer: This example is provided for general instructive purposes only and does not represent the work of USAID. The inclusion of this example, its funding agencies and implementing partners does not constitute support or endorsement of any specific ideas, concepts or organizations by USAID or the U.S. Government.

Problem

In the Sunderban region of West Bengal, an area filled with mangrove swamps and small rivers, extending high-voltage transmission lines is difficult. As a result, remote villages in the region lack access to electricity. In the absence of grid-based power, many households rely on kerosene for lighting and diesel generators for electricity. Because these options are expensive, renewable energy is a viable alternative for these remote areas.

Solution

The WBREDA, formed in 1993, has developed a community-based model for mini-grid development. Working with local communities, WBREDA has developed 23 mini-grids ranging in size from 25 kwP to 100 kWp. The mini-grids use a range of renewable energy technologies, but primarily use solar photovoltaic (PV).

Initially, most mini-grids provided electricity only for basic lighting. Some systems enabled mobile-phone charging or economic activities, such as photocopying. Consumer demand has grown rapidly, however, so WBREDA has helped communities expand generation capacity to accommodate televisions and fans. To expand capacity, WBREDA introduced hybrid systems, such as solar-wind or wind-biomass.

Public funds cover capital costs, while tariffs cover operations and maintenance. Under India’s Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) Plan, WBREDA and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) each contribute 50 percent of the capital costs for mini-grids. Consumer tariffs finance day-to-day operations and maintenance costs. All tariffs include a 20 percent surcharge that goes into a fund for unforeseen future expenses.

Customers pay a flat fee for a fixed amount of power. Customers with 120 W of connected load pay about $2.20 per month; those with 60 W of connected load pay $1.25 per month.

Innovation

Driven in part by the difficulties managing remote systems from a central office, WBREDA developed a partnership-ownership model. In each village, WBREDA helps form a local cooperative or beneficiary committee to help manage the mini-grid.

Involving Communities from the Start

Cooperation with local communities is at the heart of WBREDA’s approach. At the beginning of each mini-grid project, WBREDA helps form a local cooperative to drive direct community involvement. In the planning stages, cooperatives build trust and local support for projects. As a result, communities readily provide land for mini-grids and participate in planning.

Keeping Communities Engaged

Communities remain engaged throughout the project life cycle, from planning to implementation. The local cooperative or beneficiary committee is actively involved in determining and collecting tariffs, selecting customers, planning distribution lines and handling grievances. They are instrumental in educating communities about the project and responsible use of electricity.

Ensuring High-Quality Service

WBREDA pays for qualified personnel to operate and maintain systems at all times. This ensures that services meet consumer expectations and foster continued support for the mini-grid project.

Challenges

The central grid has reached some parts of the project area, creating competition with mini-grids. As many as four mini-grids have shut down as a result, while others operate at only half of their intended capacity. In contrast, WBREDA mini-grids in villages not connected to the central grid have been well maintained and are still operational.

When given the option, consumers prefer the central grid. Grid-based electricity is less expensive, and there is no limit on consumption. In rural areas, central grid power is highly subsidized; customers pay only $0.04 per kWh. WBREDA mini-grids, on the other hand, charge $0.10/kWh to$0.49/kWh, depending on level of use.

In areas where central grid extension is possible, consumers tend to default on payments for mini-grid services and pressure local politicians to push for grid extension instead. Poor communication about grid extension plans or disconnect between national and local priorities also contributes to mini-grid failure.

Lessons Learned

Mini-grid developers need accurate information about the government’s grid extension plans. When the national grid extends to a region, mini-grids in and around the area are more likely to fail.

Mini-grid projects are more likely to succeed when a local organization is involved. Partnering with a local cooperative or beneficiary committee is key to WBREDA’s success—it helps build trust and support for mini-grid projects. Over the course of WBREDA’s mini-grid projects, the role of the cooperatives declined. Conflict or lack of motivation decreased cooperatives’ involvement. Beneficiary committees—local organizations with fewer responsibilities—have replaced cooperatives in many villages.

Key Features

LocationFlag of India

This map shows the Sundarbans of West Bengal, India. The Sundarbans of West Bengal, India.

Implementer

WBREDA

Technology

PV, biomass, biomass-PV hybrids and wind-diesel hybrids.

System Size

25 kWp to 100 kWp.

Service

Lighting, economic activities, such as photocopying services and mobile-phone charging and hybrid systems for televisions and fans.

Reach

More than 10,000 households.

Tariff Structure

Flat fee charged for a fixed amount of power used.

Tariff Rate

Customers with 120 W of connected load: $2.20 per month.

Customers with 60 W of connected load: $1.25 per month.

Ownership

Partnerships with local cooperatives (beneficiary committees).

Enabling Environment

India’s RGGVY Plan.

Project Finance

Capital costs fully covered by public funds: 50 percent by WBREDA and 50 percent by the MNRE.

Community Participation

Close community engagement throughout the project life cycle from planning to implementation, including setting tariffs, selecting customers, distribution line planning and grievances handling.

Capacity Building

WBREDA helps form local cooperatives or committees and conducts periodic training for local operators.

Last updated: February 13, 2018

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