In the last few years, there have been success stories from different parts of India where decentralised renewable energy (DRE), especially in rural India, has facilitated the growth of livelihood opportunities such as an increase of women-led enterprises in tribal areas of Jharkhand or allowed farmers to switch from polluting sources of fuel to cleaner energy solutions to irrigate their land and more. Decentralised renewable energy setups are localised systems where energy production is located close to the energy consumption.

A recent study by international think tank Power for All, which works on ending energy poverty, claimed that from 2019 to 2021, 80,000 people were directly employed in the DRE sector. The sector also witnessed an increase in formal jobs. While the share of formal jobs in the DRE sector in India stood at 45 percent in 2019 it increased to 77 percent in 2021. The report estimated that there will likely be 89,000 jobs in the DRE sector by the end of 2023, hinting at a promising future for the sector in the coming years. The study titled Powering Jobs Census: 2022 surveyed the formal and informal employment in the DRE sector in India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.

The report used data from a direct survey of 350 DRE companies, analysed employment data from 2019 to 2021 and also examined the employment and sales projections for 2022-23. Estimating that the share of direct employment is also going to scale up by an average of 5 percent per annum between 2021-23, the report also noted that the DRE sector has shown resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic unlike other sectors of renewable energy such as wind or solar, which saw large scale unemployment during the pandemic. While the DRE sector saw a loss of 2.5 percent jobs between 2019 and 2021, the utility-scale solar industry saw a 42 percent decline in the number of workers in 2021.

"This was our second power census report. We produced the first such census report in 2019. This report included interviews with several DRE companies in India and other countries where the survey was done. This is one of the most comprehensive datasets of jobs in the DRE sector. The 2022 report also gives an insight into what the government and investors need to do for the human capital needed for this sector for the coming years," said Kristina Skierka, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Power for All.

A farmer stands near a decentralised
solar mini-grid in Gumla in Jharkhand.
Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

A separate study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said that the overall jobs in renewable energy are increasing around the globe, including in India. It found that in 2021, two-thirds of the renewable jobs were in Asia itself, with 42 percent of the world's jobs in this sector in China and seven percent in India. The report said that countries such as the United States and India added record amounts of their solar capacities. India was ranked third in total addition of solar capacity after China and the United States. The report added that India's on-grid solar systems have an estimated 1,37,000 jobs, while the off-grid systems have around 80,600 jobs.

Abhishek Jain, Fellow and Director (Powering Livelihoods) at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based public policy think tank, speaking about the benefits of DRE in boosting livelihood opportunities in rural areas, said, "Among all other sectors of clean energy, DRE is creating many more jobs. It allows much more opportunity to include more jobs with per megawatt addition to renewable energy. It also has the additional benefits of increasing livelihood opportunities and thus acts as a catalyst in creating green jobs and green livelihoods." He told Mongabay-India, "CEEW estimates claim that if India achieves its target of 500 GW of clean energy by 2030, around 3.5 million jobs will be created and majority of them would be in the rooftop solar systems, which is a part of DRE. But if we see the augmentation of livelihood opportunities, DRE can actually augment around 25 million livelihoods by 2030. This is the kind of phenomenon potential the sector has."

Gender disparity in DRE jobs

According to the Powering Jobs report by Power For All, among the five countries surveyed, India had the lowest participation of women in the workforce in the DRE sector. In India, the total share of women working in the DRE sector was 20 percent in 2021, a drop from 23 percent in 2019.

The participation rate also differs in different segments of decentralised solar systems, noted the report. The share of semi-skilled women is highest in mini-grid systems while the commercial and industrial setups have the highest number of skilled women in the workforce.

A solar panel for a water pump in Baghar village in Gaya district. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

The report also talked about a significant pay discrepancy between men and women employees in the sector. According to the results of the report, "Women in the DRE sector earn only 80 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. The highest pay gap exists for top management staff at 60 per cent, while unskilled women DRE workers in India have the lowest pay gap at 96 per cent of the male wage. India has one of the widest gender pay gaps in the world."

"There is no dearth of women with acumen and talent to perform well in the DRE sector. We need to look at the existing institutions in rural areas, be it rural livelihood agencies or Self Help Groups which need to be mobilised for training and skill development of the women workforce there. This can facilitate the scaling up of business opportunities for them. We also need to see the flexibility and kind of support they require to thrive in this sector," said Surabhi Rajagopal, Senior Program Manager, SELCO Foundation.

Upendra Bhatt, CEO, co-founder of cKinetics, a sustainability and capital advisory firm. He said that DRE solutions in fact have the potential to create more jobs in rural areas and can actually work towards reversing migration. "DRE is actually a spectrum of solutions. We often see migration of communities from rural areas to urban areas. DRE with its potential can help in reversing the migration. We just need right policy thrust and a market direction clarity to meet our targets to expand the success of the technology in India."