The Sun's Two Faces: Solar Power in India, 1877-2021
Location: Online, via Zoom
Sponsor: Harvard University Asia Center
Science and Technology Seminar Series
Speaker: Elizabeth Chatterjee, University of Chicago
Chair: Victor Seow, Department of the History of Science
Sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center and convened by Professor Victor Seow, Department of the History of Science; Co-sponsored by the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University
Please register here: https://harvard.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcqfu2hq...
Solar energy is popularly cast as a novel magic bullet that promises both sustainable development and democratic decentralization. Such utopianism overlooks a longer history of solar research and policy in the postcolonial world. In parallel with the Nehruvian state’s famed high-modernist dams and nuclear projects, there persisted in newly independent India a competing tendency to think small. This was a fundamentally conservative vision, rooted in the idea of a dual energy economy: abundant grid electricity for the urban rich, frugal and inferior off-grid technologies for the rural poor. The massive rural electrification campaigns of the twenty-first century finally revealed the social unsustainability of this dualistic approach. Across India austere off-grid solutions have been abandoned in favor of the “real power” of the predominantly coal-fired public grids, while distributed rooftop solar generation is reimagined as an instrument of elite flight. Against the tendency in energy history to study single power sources in isolation, this history signals the importance of studying energy regimes in the round. Solar power has evolved in the shadow of the grid. Long the poor man’s energy, today a newly elitist but equally inegalitarian new chapter is dawning in solar history.