Decentralised renewable energy

Sustainable growth of livelihoods sector in North Eastern region of India

Dr. Akanksha Chaurey, independent renewable energy expert, advisor to WEFT,

Rekha Krishnan, Water Energy Food Transitions (WEFT) Research LLP [i]

Monthly Spotlight

Jan 18, 2024

The North Eastern Region (NER) of India, comprising eight states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – popularly known as “Seven Sisters” and Sikkim- the “Brother”), is strategically important for the country as 99% of its geographical boundary is shared with the neighbouring countries of China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar[ii]. NER anchors the “Act East” policy of the Government of India[iii] and is key to promoting cross-border connectivity infrastructure projects. The region holds tremendous potential for growth of its rural livelihoods sectors (agriculture including horticulture, livestock, fishery, handlooms, MSME, eco-tourism etc.) on account of its rich natural resource base and its positioning as the gateway to export markets in South Asia and South-East Asia.

Though the NER states differ socio-culturally and geo-physically as well, there are also some similarities which make it useful to study this region as a whole. We take the example of three NER states: Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Assam is the largest state in terms of area and population. All states have over 80% rural population, 70% of which is supported by agriculture as the main source of livelihood.

However, the mechanisation and adoption of modern tools and technologies in agriculture is low.  Agricultural mechanisation in these states is under  1 kW/ hectare[iv] (as compared to the national average of 2.5 kW/ha, which is targeted to be increased to 4 kW/ hectare by 2030). Also, only under 25% of the gross cropped area is under irrigation in all states. Agriculture, particularly horticulture involving perishable crops, is badly affected by poor post-harvest infrastructure. For instance, in Meghalaya, 30% of pineapple (a major fruit crop) is wasted due to a lack of storage and processing facilities.

While affordability, access and exposure are some of the reasons for low mechanisation, erratic power supply is also a contributing factor. Several parts of the NER can be termed as “weak-grid” areas and diesel-powered generators are commonly used as back-up. The use of Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) systems can address the challenge of energy gaps, enabling NER to leapfrog to low-carbon, effective technology solutions to strengthen livelihoods and increase productivity.

DRE systems are typically small-scale energy units that use renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, small hydro, agriculture & forest biomass waste, etc., to generate and distribute energy close to the point of use, thereby avoiding transmission and distribution losses.

DRE is less vulnerable to the volatility of the fossil fuel markets, offers local energy independence,  and brings added benefits of stimulating local employment, zero-carbon economic development and disaster management & climate resilience[v]. A recent study shows that just 12 DRE technologies can positively impact 37 million livelihoods and create revenue of USD 48 billion in India.[vi]

More than 176 million people globally had access to some form of DRE-based electricity globally in 2019 which is an eightfold increase compared to 2011.[vii] Over the last couple of decades, the Indian DRE space has also evolved. In particular, RE-powered appliances – which were confined to solar lanterns and solar pumps – now cater to common applications like cold storage, boiling, cooking, milling, grinding/pulverising, and drying but also to niche but critical needs like insect repelling, spraying, yarn spinning. A portal dedicated to DRE appliances developed by CLEAN (, India’s DRE industry association, is testimony to the rapid expansion in this segment.[viii]

Several of the DRE technologies are robust and market-ready. Though their penetration is low, there is now a recognition of the potential for DRE integration, particularly in rural livelihoods.

Being a nascent sector, DRE has multi-dimensional challenges associated with technology customization, financing, market design, acceptability, after-sales service etc. While solar PV technology has attained a level of market maturity, several DRE technologies need customization to make them suitable for specific end-use applications. Further, quality, safety, reliability, durability, and performance guarantee are some other issues that need to be addressed adequately to increase user as well as investors’ confidence. There are case examples and good practices that have showcased the way to address some of the above challenges, albeit at a pilot scale. Yet, specific awareness and understanding of what, why, how, and where about DRE technologies is lacking among decision-makers of end-use (i.e. livelihoods) sectors.

To bring DRE at the centre stage of state level planning and execution of livelihoods programmes, an enabling eco-system is to be created at the state/regional level. This is the aim of an ongoing initiative by WEFT in partnership with CLEAN[ix]. CLEAN’s efforts in the past have involved engaging with local authorities in the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya to help develop DRE deployment plants at the local (district and village) levels as well as designing and setting up demonstration DRE units (for irrigation, cold storage, food processing). 

Pro-DRE ecosystem creation involves elements across technology innovations, financing solutions, upstream and downstream linkages (supply chain, markets), skills/capacity enhancement support and conducive policies & regulatory landscape. These enablers must be embedded within various departments in the states, including those dealing with power, renewable energy, rural development, horticulture, fisheries, sericulture, eco-tourism, and all other livelihood sectors specific to NE states and regions. Unless the end-use departments champion the use of DRE, its potential to create an impact on the rural economy in NE will remain undermined.

At the very beginning, policy commitments to DRE must be visible in the schemes of the user departments as part of their endeavours to energise mechanisation, productivity improvement etc. The objective would be to include as many mature DRE technologies in the existing schemes as possible. Further, some specific policy steps to catalyse the DRE integration into livelihood schemes should be undertaken. As an example- the existing incentives in these schemes offered for mechanisation, energisation or electrification can be modified to clearly include DRE integration in the form of DRE-powered appliances/ equipment and/or powering a unit/centre with DRE. Similarly, policies that provide subsidies on grid electricity connections or grid electricity usage may be modified to include electricity from DRE; in fact, a higher subsidy may be extended to such clean and decentralised electricity for captive generation and use.

Finally, inter-departmental coordination must be streamlined to ensure synergies and avoid overlaps. Among the ways to scale up DRE for livelihoods, the involvement of state nodal agencies for renewable energy, state rural livelihoods missions, state infrastructure development agencies, state-level bankers’ committees, district administrations, NGOs, civil society organisations, consumer groups, etc, is very important. Considering the vast and diverse spread of the livelihoods sector and sub-sectors, DRE integration in them needs to be facilitated in a coordinated, coherent, and competent manner.  An integrated and inclusive approach and inter-departmental coordination should be of prime importance for maximising socio-economic impact while keeping carbon emissions low through DRE-energised livelihoods in the NE region.

WEFT, in partnership with CLEAN, has reached out to local governmental and non-governmental players to work on roadmaps for DRE integration through sector-specific interventions as well as cross-sectoral policy analysis and advocacy. Dissemination of the findings with relevant stakeholder groups, including government agencies at both the central and state levels, will be necessary to ensure systematic DRE integration on the ground.


[i] Rekha Krishnan is the Founder and Partner,Water Energy Food Transitions (WEFT) Research LLP. Dr. Chaurey is an independent renewable energy expert and an advisor to WEFT.  The authors acknowledge the interaction with CLEAN network in enriching this article




[v] DRE can play a key role when electric transmission and distribution networks collapse and/or when restoration of grid power is found to be unsafe.




[ix] CLEAN is a not-for-profit organisation committed to support, unify and grow decentralised renewable energy enterprises in India.