Professor Vikram Gandhi’s Immersive Field Course (IFC) “Development while Decarbonizing: India’s Path to Net-Zero" delved into the critical aspect of decarbonization and sustainability goals amid India's rapid development. The course presented an opportunity for students to advance their knowledge of sustainability efforts, decarbonization, and net zero in the context of a broader development agenda. The class culminated in a series of site visits in January 2024 in Mumbai and Bangalore and this is one of 14 student essays that highlights their reflections on uncovering sustainable solutions across the country.

India stands at a critical juncture in its pursuit of sustainable development, grappling with the dual challenges of rapid economic growth and decarbonization. Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) serves to address India's electrification challenges, particularly in rural areas, while aligning with the nation's ambitious goals for achieving net-zero emissions by 2070. Poor communities are usually at the receiving end of the worst impacts of climate change, coupled with unreliable energy, lack of timely healthcare, and lack of livelihood opportunities.

On the last site visit of the inaugural India Climate IFC, students visited a semi-urban public healthcare facility which was outfitted with a full rooftop solar installation and multiple solar powered technologies provided by SELCO.

SELCO (“Solar Electric Light Company”), based in Bangalore, was founded in 1995 by Dr. Harish Hande and Neville Williams as a private for-profit social enterprise. SELCO initially aimed to sell and service photovoltaic systems in Dr. Hande’s home state of Karnataka, with a mission of providing sustainable energy services to low-income households and businesses. More recently, SELCO expanded services to include the supply and distribution of sustainable energy through solar lighting, thermal water heaters, and inverter systems, enabling the underserved sector to receive sustainable energy at affordable costs.

SELCO has gained recognition in customizing solar electric components for the unique requirements of low-income urban and rural communities through conducting needs assessments for various customer segments, like street vendors, midwives, and farmers. Through experimentation and customer feedback, they have refined their product offerings to provide solutions that tackle the largest sources of drudgery and inconvenience in everyday life as well as energy instability which is common in rural areas. SELCO’s codified approach of first innovating with a user-centered approach, then scaling once a solution has been proved viable, and finally amplifying the positive impact within the community is designed to build ecosystems that deliver quality livelihood, health, and energy services at the last mile. During our visit, we had the chance to see and learn about several of their solar powered livelihood technology solutions and solar powered healthcare technology solutions.

Solar Powered Livelihood Technology Solutions

To demonstrate some of the livelihood tech solutions, the SELCO team brought several microbusiness owners who are using SELCO solutions in their rural villages to showcase various solar powered livelihood technologies, including a sugarcane juicer (top left), roti rolling machine (top right), sewing machine (bottom left), and pottery making machine (bottom right).

Core to SELCO’s mission is also inclusion of underserved or disabled folks. Many of these machines decrease manual labor, increase efficiency, and enable differently abled folk to perform work they previously wouldn’t have been able to do (e.g., roti machine with space for a wheelchair).

SELCO has also built partnerships with Indian banks and microfinance organizations to enable entrepreneurs and families to cover the capital costs involved in acquiring and using these solutions. SELCO also provides gap funding from philanthropic organizations and other financial
institutions to help catalyze development and deployment of new DRE technologies.

Solar Powered Healthcare Technology Solutions

The healthcare solutions primarily focused on tackling the issue of energy instability and related consequences to the healthcare infrastructure.

India’s primary healthcare system is the backbone of public health infrastructure, serving as the first point of contact for last-mile communities seeking medical attention. Access to clean and reliable energy is a critical enabler for building an inclusive healthcare infrastructure, since 70% of the country’s population resides in rural areas.

Source: SELCO’s HBS Visit Briefing Booklet

Remote locations and the lack of reliable energy often result in vaccine wastage, disrupting the integrity of the cold chain at the last mile and thus compromising immunization. One solution to this we saw during our visit was a vaccine refrigerator (below), which could be charged with the power generated by the solar rooftop panels.

We also saw many diagnostic solutions, including a Klinik-powered diagnostic machine to support telehealth (left) and solar-powered first-aid kit (right).

Recently, SELCO Foundation and IKEA Foundation, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) and various State Health Missions, launched a ground-breaking initiative ‘Energy for Health’ to bring solar energy solutions with efficient medical and electrical equipment to 25,000 healthcare facilities in resource-constrained climate-vulnerable regions across 12 states by 2026. The potential impact is huge - at the health facility we visited, the installation of solar and battery storage meant their monthly electricity went down from ~10,000 INR to ~400 INR, and they have up to 2 days’ worth of electricity in the battery storage units.

In conclusion, SELCO’s last mile solar-powered energy solutions for rural India exemplifies a commitment to a ‘just’ sustainable transition that doesn’t leave behind underserved communities. Through their robust systems thinking methods, SELCO has been able to develop innovative solar powered technologies tailored to the unique needs of various customer segments including micro-business owners. Partnerships with financial institutions, microfinance organizations, and philanthropic entities reflect a holistic strategy to make these solutions accessible, affordable, and sustainable.