Smart grids are a promising innovation in a changing landscape of electricity generation, transmission and distribution. By enabling optimal alignment of demand and supply smart grids improve sustainability, operation, robustness and efficiency of the electricity system (IEA, n.d.; GSGF, n.d.).
All over the world, countries have set out to “make their grids smart”, including India (GOI, 2013). India’s efforts are underpinned by two major national challenges: India’s electricity demand is growing, while its electricity system is grappling with severe performance deficits. At the same time, about 400 million Indians have no access to electricity at all. Smart grids do not only promise to alleviate the malperformances of the existing grid, they can also play a role in decentralized rural electrification (Tongia, 2014; Anand et al., 2014; GOI, 2013).
Technological interventions, however, need to be embedded in society if they are to be successful. It is generally recognized that the future of smart grids depends on how users respond to these new energy systems. Studies on smart grids in Europe indicate the importance to consider users, their practices and values if smart grids are to be successfully realized (Verbong et al. 2013; Wolsink 2013, Naus et al, 2014). Literature on the deployment of distributed renewable energy grids in rural India also underlines the need to consider socioeconomic and institutional factors to ensure the grids’ success (Gambhir, 2012; Ram, 2012; Deshmukh, 2013).
However, the thrust of research on user practices (Spaargaren, 2003, 2011; Shove, 2003) has concentrated on the global North. There is a need to enrich the literature with insights from the South, where often contexts and energy practices are fundamentally different, especially when energy and access to it has not yet become entrenched in people’s lives as it is the case in the West.
Similarly, ethical considerations are of great importance with regard to the issue of energy access. On the one hand, energy is a core human need and addressing energy poverty is therefore an ethically urgent task. On the other hand, because of the powerlessness of the rural poor, innovations for rural development can easily be hijacked by more powerful stakeholders, extending social injustices or even exacerbating them (e.g. Balkema and Pols, accepted; Nieusma and Riley, 2010).
The bottleneck for the success of smart grids can thus be seen in the difficulty to embed the technology in society in a way that is both socially accepted and ethically acceptable. Empirically grounded insights and ethical attention for the most vulnerable stakeholders are needed to address this challenge. This informs the projects’ research focus which is guided by the following overarching research question:
How can smart grids be successfully developed and implemented in rural India?
Five interrelated sub-questions help to specify and address the overall question:
- What are the technical requirements for smart grids for a rural Indian context?
- How can smart grids be embedded and commercialized in the rural Indian energy market?
- How do societal and institutional factors affect the viability of smart grid implementation and use?
- What are the ethical challenges in developing smart grids for rural India and how can they be addressed?
- What are the key factors that affect the potential for upscaling of smart grids throughout India?
These questions are addressed by closely studying, informing and adjusting the actual process of developing and implementing smart grids on a local scale. In an iterative process the project will define, develop and test prototypes that enable a “smart” exchange of electricity in Indian villages. These “local insights” will be related to a broader perspective which offers insights about the wider societal embedding of smart grids and possibilities of upscaling.
To operationalize the research and its focus on successful smart grid development and implementation five interrelated work packages (WP) have been set-up, each guided by the respective sub-question mentioned above.