Taking Renewables to Rural Areas

  • Gita Surie, professor of management at Adelphi University in New York. The focus of her research work is development of renewable energy and social entrepreneurship in India. Photograph courtesy Geeta Surie
  • Gita Surie visited rural renewable energy projects New Delhi, Jaipur and Bengaluru on two Fulbright-Nehru Fellowships and interviewed numerous company leaders and academics. Photograph courtesy Geeta Surie
  • Social entrepreneurs can play a huge role in bringing renewable energy to India’s far-flung rural communities. Photograph courtesy Geeta Surie.

Fulbright-Nehru Fellow Gita Surie is researching how to bring renewable energy to rural India through social entrepreneurship.

India has made great strides in recent years in bringing electricity to the country’s over 600,000 villages. According to Gita Surie, a professor of management at Adelphi University in New York, this development can be continued in the most sustainable, low-cost and ecologically sound way by supporting social entrepreneurs to bring renewable energy to India’s far-flung rural communities.

Surie was born in Chicago, but raised in Kolkata. She returned to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University, New York, and a Ph.D. in applied economics from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Surie joined Adelphi University in 2004 and was chair of its management department until she left on a sabbatical in 2019. She is using this time to continue her research on what has been her focus for the last decade—the development of renewable energy and social entrepreneurship in India.

“I’m in a business school, so I was first looking at large energy companies,” to meet the country’s goal of increasing its use of renewables, mainly sun, wind and biomass, says Surie. “Then, I started studying how to commercialize these services to the rural sector,” she continues. “Most companies are developing renewable energy in the cities; they think rural people have little money.”  Surie’s research shows that various conditions must be put in place to promote the successful spread of rural renewable energy services.

Surie spent two summers, in 2013 and 2014, on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, researching the issue in New Delhi, Jaipur and Bengaluru. During her fellowships, she visited rural renewable energy projects and interviewed numerous company leaders and academics. India is considered an ideal laboratory for study in this field as it is among the top countries in production of electricity from renewable sources. Electrifying rural villages is a national priority, with the aims of promoting economic growth and alleviating poverty.

“Renewable energy is an attractive option for developing economies, as it relies on locally available energy resources, alleviates environmental concerns and keeps petroleum import costs in line while satisfying the rising demand for energy to fuel economic growth,” wrote Surie in an article published in the academic journal, Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

On her visits to India, she found “a lot of interesting and heartwarming projects,” from a biogas electricity generation scheme at a dairy farm in Rajasthan to small windmill projects elsewhere. However, according to her, one shortcoming of such small projects is that they often lack trained personnel for maintaining them. “It’s nice to have these one-off NGO projects,” she says, “but I’m interested in the strategies to scale them up.”

Such strategies involve broad networks, including companies, government, academic researchers and social entrepreneurs. In her article, Surie wrote that social entrepreneurship is a particularly appropriate way to market new types of energy generation in rural areas because of “the poor commercialization environment for innovation in renewable energy.”

During her research, Surie found the need to train local people to service and maintain renewable energy projects, so that even the most remote villages possess the skills to keep these projects going. She says India’s central and state governments, which have ambitious renewable energy targets, are experimenting with incentives, changes to regulations and other measures to promote networks that can help social entrepreneurs bring renewable energy to rural areas across the country. The wide web of factors that can promote renewables includes financial measures. For example, an NGO in South India has been working with banks to provide loans to villagers to install solar panels and other renewable technologies.

One of the main learnings from Surie’s research is that new renewable technologies have a big role to play in India’s energy future. But for that to happen, a supportive network of businesses, government agencies, university researchers and social entrepreneurs is needed, supported by regulatory reforms and incentives by the central and state governments.

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.