This case study is of “India’s First Fully Solar Powered Village” —Dharnai. It is a case of the promises of and challenges facing the realisation of “energy democracy” — the idea that distributed renewable energy systems have the potential to democratise the economy and society.
This case study offers the reader three takeaways. First, it locates the project at Dharnai, Bihar in relation to the theoretical framework of energy democracy and the national and global renewable energy policy regimes. This is based on the academic literature on energy-society studies, documentation and outreach material about the project and interviews with individuals involved in the life of the project.
Second, the case study details how the project was conceived and implemented in Dharnai.
Third, it records how citizens of Dharnai experienced the microgrid, as well as their interpretation of what it means for them.
The latter two takeaways are based on interviews with the villagers of Dharnai conducted in December 2017 and March 2020 as well as interviews with individuals associated with the project as representatives of its external proponents.
This case study ends with some considerations about the realisation of energy democracy; specifically, the proposal of devolving sovereignty to the grassroots through participatory governance enabled by the ability to devolve ownership of energy infrastructure.
The challenge illustrated by this case study, to the idea of energy democracy as an alternative path to energy transition, is two-fold. First, the relatively low capacity of solar photovoltaic systems to convert energy, i.e., “power density,” was perceived to be at odds with the aspired levels of energy availability. The citizens of Dharnai tended to associate the more expansive availability of electricity from the grid as “real electricity,” which was more closely matched to meeting their aspirations.
Low power density limits the possible economically productive applications, which further undermines the financial viability of the project. Second, somewhat surprisingly, some of the citizens’ of Dharnai tended to disavow their capacity for participatory governance, presumed in the energy democracy literature, insisting instead that an external, powerful actor, whom they “feared,” was better suited to manage the affairs of the microgrid.
This could be understood as suggesting that prior to, or at least in parallel with investments in decentralised energy technology, significant commitment is needed to understand and foster the social and cultural infrastructures for participatory democracy and local governance. Such an engagement may have to grapple with deep-seated caste divisions and the resulting undermining of civic community.