Lighting up the subcontinent

New renewable energy schemes in India promise an end to power cuts, but only if they receive interna

It looks more like a home-made space station than the future of Indian energy. Three giant, silver golf balls direct a patchwork of mirrors towards a thick steel cube. Nearby, a white beehive sits at the top of a long, black ramp. Standing next to these futuristic objects is a smartly dressed, smiling man. "They're quite simple, really," he explains. "The parabolic mirrors concentrate the sun's rays to a single point." With a flourish, he places a plank in front of the cube and, in seconds, it begins to smoke. "The beehive is a solar dryer for food or clothing. We've got tamarind in there today, but garlic works just as well."

Father Paul Mariadass runs a renewable energy consultancy in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. His company has recently installed two parabolic mirrors on the roof of the local hospital to sterilise surgical equipment. In a city where power cuts can last a week, reliability is crucial. Father Paul develops his projects in a small workshop that no longer needs the grid for its power. "I can leave the fans on all day and still operate all the heavy machinery except the welder," he says. I ask how he feels during a blackout, when the rest of the city is immersed in darkness. "When that happens, I feel like the most powerful man in Bihar."

Around 400 million people in India - the equivalent of the entire population of the United States - live without access to electricity. This energy poverty has an impact on every aspect of rural life, from road safety and snake­bites to adult literacy and local commerce. With the rapid onset of the tropical dusk, entire communities are forced to down tools; children have to put away their books; and shops must shut before darkness closes in.

A series of government-led power schemes is beginning to have an impact but, in a country of India's size, there will always be areas that are too remote to justify an expensive grid connection. Six hours from Father Paul's workshop lies one such village, Billouiri, which is surrounded by sodden green fields. Half a dozen men sit in the shade of a fragile straw roof, discussing the state elections and spitting volleys of bright-red paan. "We only get four hours now, but we were promised six," complains Sudhir Kumar, a 36-year-old farmer who is the most forthright of the group. "Of course, we're happy that the power plant has come, but we want to watch our televisions for longer."

Caste off

Six months ago, a company called Husk Power Systems arrived in the village with a proposition. For 80 rupees a month (just over £1), the villagers could receive six hours per day of just enough electricity to power two light bulbs and a mobile-phone charger. A few extra rupees allowed them to plug in a television. Several hundred households took up the offer and a small silver plant was built on the edge of the village to convert waste rice husk to a combustible gas that drives a small turbine.

This rapid development has shifted Kumar's priorities. I ask him to name the most significant issue facing his village in the state elections. "Caste," he replies, but then quickly checks himself. "No, irrigation. It used to be caste, but other things are more pressing now." Long-time observers of Bihar's political scene have noticed a big shift in these elections - a move away from the point-scoring of the past towards real discussion of infrastructure and development. The politics of birthright still looms large, but roads, schools and electricity are slowly beginning to take precedence.

For small companies such as Husk Power Systems, India's energy crisis is a tantalising business opportunity. One of its directors, Alok Bhushan, explains: "We understand the dynamics of the rural economy and the mentality of the people. Whatever hasn't been seen, whatever hasn't been heard - it takes time for an individual to perceive it, to understand it. But once it's up and running, people are happy to pay for reliable power."

Since its inception in 2007, the company has built 60 plants in Bihar, powering 125 villages. Bhushan has bold plans to expand across the state and into the rest of India; the company's latest target is for 2,014 plants by 2014.

If there's a catch, it is that Husk Power Systems is something of a one-off. Run by a team with an array of international MBAs, the company has won support from the World Bank, a US venture capital firm and the Shell Foundation. It is now applying for funding through the much-maligned Clean Development Mechanism, a demanding UN process for generating tradable carbon credits. All these applications require time and a detailed understanding of what will satisfy the moneymen in London and New York - an elite skill.

Green light

The priority for the Indian government must be to help other, less savvy companies to benefit from the coming wave of international support. The environment ministers who are meeting in the latest round of UN climate negotiations (COP16) in Cancún, Mexico, are attempting to atone for the disastrous lack of progress at Copenhagen last year. This year's summit, held between 29 November and 10 December, is focusing on finance - specifically, how to generate around $100bn annually to tackle climate change over the next decade.

Part of this money, if it materialises, is expected to provide low-interest loans and microfinance for small energy projects. Right now, the debate is stuck. Rich countries are refusing to commit to a definite figure until developing nations show exactly how the money will be spent.

This diplomatic dance in the UN meeting rooms will have a big impact on clean energy companies around the world. Siddharth Pathak, a policy expert at Greenpeace India, believes his country has a major role to play. "Huge developing economies such as India's are at a crossroads and they need to show the international community that the world has a choice. Down one path lie fossil fuels, outdated technology and high emissions. The other promises a new approach, with innovation in clean energy and a concerted effort to leapfrog the polluting industries of the past. But for this to happen, we need to see courage on both sides. A truly global perspective is the only thing that will break the deadlock."

It can be hard to cut through the jargon of fungible carbon credits and seed-stage funding to see what's at stake in these talks. At the end of our interview, Bhushan describes a recent trip through an area where his rice-husk plants are up and running.

“These villages are being lit up in the darkness and it gives you immense satisfaction. The best part is seeing individuals just doing what they are supposed to do. That is what drives me and the whole team. Kids would otherwise be hurting themselves badly. There have been so many examples of burns and deaths through kerosene; it's highly unsafe. Once you see all that changing, it's a really great feeling."

James Turner is a campaigner for Greenpeace

A COP out? From Kyoto to Cancún

Last December, the world's media watched as the climate summit in Copenhagen collapsed amid diplomatic wrangling and point-scoring. The end product was the Copenhagen Accord, which bound members to little more than "taking note" of the need to limit global temperature increases to 2°C.

With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012, the Cancún climate summit this month aims to lay the foundations for a binding agreement on carbon emissions that will extend beyond that year. Any deal has to be agreeable to rich and poor nations alike and, most significantly, the US and China, the world's two biggest polluters.

China - which some portray as the main obstacle to a successful deal in Copenhagen - has made positive noises over an agreement in Mexico, but
is expected to comply only if certain conditions are met.

The Copenhagen Accord contained pledges of $30bn for developing countries to fight climate change. Chinese concessions are dependent on this fund switching from pledges to reality.

A new UN plan to tax carbon emissions will be aired for the first time at the summit. Yet the chance of a binding deal is complicated by the US domestic political situation: a Republican-controlled Congress makes it unlikely such legislation will pass.
Duncan Robinson