Ladakh, a remote district of India’s northernmost state, is currently benefiting from the largest off-grid renewable energy project in the world. The Ministry for New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is spending INR473 billion (US$88.8 million) on decentralized solar and hydro technologies to bring energy security to this remote mountain region. Why Ladakh?

“Because we Ladakhis are closer to God,” smiles Jigmet Takpa, project director of the Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency (LREDA). “Our sunshine is high quality. We have an average of 320 sunny days every year and the mountain air is thin and cold, making the operation of photovoltaic systems highly efficient. Ladakh is a solar paradise.”

Ladakh, known as the Land of High Passes, is a high-altitude cold desert region in Jammu & Kashmir state, neighboring China to the east and Pakistan to the north. It is a focus of the 3.5 year Ladakh Renewable Energy Initiative (LREI), a 28.3 MW energy revolution, now in its final year.

Ladakh is manifesting a flagship role in national renewable energy policy. Although Ladakh is a small district with sparse population, its rugged geography means that many dispersed communities are beyond the viable reach of the regional grid system. Stand-alone renewables are the obvious solution. “The harsh environment makes it the perfect test case for the technology itself, and for future policy: to prove to the government and the public that renewables have a valid role to play,” says Dr. Parvind Saxena, director of MNRE in Delhi.

Electrifying rural areas is a prime government concern. Prime Minister Manoman Singh gave his personal commitment to electrify every Indian household by 2017. The 2005 Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) program has pursued grid electrification of villages, and the 2009 Remote Village Electrification Program makes off-grid provision, but 400 million Indians still lack access to modern forms of energy, and 20,000 villages are too remote to ever realistically be grid-connected.

Displacing High-cost Diesel

Beyond the social expectations, there is also a financial incentive to this initiative. “We noted that, bar a couple of small hydro projects, almost the entire region, including the Border Defense Force, was using diesel generation (DG) for electricity and kerosene for space heating, and due to Ladakh’s remote location, fuel is imported by road at a very high cost. Harsh winters close those roads for at least five months of the year, exacerbating energy vulnerability and deprivation,” says Saxena.

Prior to the LREI, Ladakh generated a total of 25 MW electricity. Of some 240 villages, 187 received electrification by micro-grid for a few hours each day, 75 percent by diesel and the remainder by small hydro. A few remote communities entirely lacked electricity.

“The high cost of DG in Ladakh, currently INR25-28/kWh (US$0.47-0.52), makes renewable energy very competitive,” says Takpa. “Off-grid solar PV-generated electricity worked out over 20 years’ system-life in Ladakh currently comes to INR16-18/kWh ($0.30-0.34). And the cost of solar keeps falling due to technological development and scalability.

The International Renewable Energy Agency‘s (IRENA) November 2012 report confirmed renewable energy as the default option for off-grid electricity provision, with solar PV now a cheaper option than diesel in many locations.

The LREI’s use of dispersed hydro and solar PV have rapidly replaced diesel to a large extent and avoided unnecessary extension of long, expensive grid lines. According to LREDA figures, the total expected saving of diesel in Ladakh from hydro and PV generation is 35 million litres per year or approximately INR1.6 billion ($32 million) annually, a substantial saving for the government.

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