While the rising urban middle classes in India’s big cities increasingly take their mod cons for granted, some 400 million Indians have never used electric light bulbs in their homes – let alone had the power to charge their mobile phones, listen to the radio or watch TV.

On a trip to India late last year to speak at the International Seminar on Energy Access, I was excited to hear the Prime Minister of India open the proceedings with a powerful speech in support of providing sustainable energy access for all.

This was the first time that the Prime Minister had been so publically vocal about the importance of energy access – not only acknowledging energy’s key role in human and economic development, but promising that the Government would try to provide round-the-clock electricity to all Indian households in the next 5 years.

Even more exciting was his support for the role of renewable energy technologies, which he said: “provide probably the most sustainable and economic options for energy access”.

It was significant to hear the prime minister of one of the world's largest emerging economies being so supportive of using renewable energy to bring the 25% of its population without access to electricity (that’s nearly 300 million people) into the 21st century. How they will do this and how realistic this is are the key questions now.

Signs of progress
One way the Government is already doing this is through the the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission Programme, launched in January 2010. This has the ambitious target of deploying 20,000 MW of grid-connected solar power and 2,000 MW of off-grid solar power to 20 million rural households by 2022. In so doing, it is making a major contribution to global efforts to mitigate climate change, while tackling the internal challenges of meeting energy demand and reducing poverty.

This Solar Mission is welcome, but won’t solve the problem alone. The problem of sustainable energy access so massive and urgent that it needs to be tackled from every possible angle.

Even those connected to the grid cannot count on it to provide: the national grid in India is famously unreliable and suffers from frequent blackouts, especially in rural communities that are further down the grid lines. This means that many rural businesses and households need back-up power in the form of a diesel generator or solar power. For remote rural communities with either a poor connection or no connection at all, generating their own electricity can be a better alternative.

Ashden winners at the cutting edge
Ashden winners are at the forefront of change in this sector, demonstrating how renewable energy can reach rural communities and bring opportunities and communications to these towns and villages.

Mini-grids can play a key role here. For example, Ashden winner Husk Power in Bihar uses rice husks to generate electricity, powering village-level mini-grids. In a state where only 10% of rural households have electricity, Husk Power is reaching 200,000 people in 300 villages.

The Sundarban Islands, which sit in a delicate ecosystem of tidal mangrove swamps and waterways across the mouth of the River Ganges, had no electricity until Ashden winner WBREDA installed solar mini-grids. This organisation is now providing electricity to 20,000 people.

Where there are mountains and rivers, micro-hydro can generate power for remote communities. In Indonesia, IBEKA’s 51 off-grid micro-hydro plants provide electricity for 10,400 households - about 47,000 people. Programmes like this can be used in mountainous parts of India, providing the most reliable and cost effective power.

Solar technology can also form an important piece of the energy access jigsaw, bringing power directly to homes and small businesses.

For example, d.light’s solar lanterns are now providing bright, safe light to 10 million people. SELCO and Aryavart Gramin Bank both have interesting models that are providing solar home systems through small loans, which can be easily paid back because families no longer have to buy kerosene. They have now reached 135,000 and 52,000 households respectively.

The Ashden India Renewable Energy Collective: a force for change
In 2011, Indian Ashden Award winners decided that the best way to spread the word about the power of local renewable energy was for them to come together to form one voice for the sustainable energy sector in India.

This week, the Ashden India Renewable Energy Collective was launched after being registered officially with the Indian Government. With our continued support, it is already forming a powerful force for change in India, with individual members working with the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy on different aspects of the Government’s sustainable energy programme.

For example, in part thanks to the efforts of members of the Collective, the Reserve Bank of India now includes lending to household renewable energy applications as a priority sector lending. Several Collective members are also providing high-level input into plans for the second phase of the Jawarharlal Nehru National Solar Mission – a sure sign of that it is taking the Collective and its members seriously.

I hope that by offering their expertise to the Indian Government, the Ashden India Collective can help it translate its powerful words into actions that propel the country to world leadership in sustainable energy, with the sustainable energy sector evolving into the booming industry it has such strong potential to become.