India’s textile and garment industry are one of the world’s largest, contributing to 3.7 per cent of the global market. The use of decentralized renewable energy can modernize and accelerate this growth while improving livelihoods for millions.

Nasir, a hand loom weaver from Belgaum, Karnataka shifted from his manual machine to a solar powered loom. As a result, he was able to double his production output and save many labour-intensive hours that impacted his income and health. Nasir now has a steady supply-chain and local client base contributing to an increased income for him and his family.

“Sustainable energy and energy efficiency within the textile value chain has the potential to make the varied livelihoods aspirational while increasing productivity and incomes for under-served small and medium enterprises in rural areas,” says SELCO Foundation’s Huda Jaffer. SELCO Foundation is a non-profit based in Bangalore that strives to bring impact through sustainable energy innovations and enterprises.

India is looking to find durable and viable ways to meet its growing energy needs. While Saubhagya has made strides in expanding grid-connectivity, decentralized renewable energy (DRE) is positioning itself as a strong alternative, especially in areas where grid-supply is erratic and unreliable. For the textile industry in particular, efficient, clean and reliable energy can go a long way in accelerating growth in the industry, increasing its contribution to India’s GDP and supporting the livelihoods of millions.

Recent estimates show that the textile and garments industry alone employ nearly 45 million people across the country and contributes to 15 per cent of India’s export earnings. More importantly, a large number of fabrics and yarns are products of local artisans who have brought traditional styles and products to an increasingly global market. Consequently, MSMEs and large textile companies are looking to scale and advance production and export, while increasing investments. India’s overall textile exports are expected to increase to $82.00 billion by 2021 from US$ 31.65 billion in 2019.

The Indian textile industry is extremely varied, from low-scale traditional textiles to capital intensive, larger mills. A significant concern for both is their growing energy needs. The supply chain of textiles and garments – from the production of fibres and yarn to fabrics, design, and distribution – is heavily dependent on electric equipment that rely on quality energy for efficient functioning. According to a paper by A R Nagaraj, an expert in textile chemistry, the use of energy alone makes up around 15-20 per cent of the total production cost. At the same time, the country is experiencing an overhaul in its energy use – through a mass shift from fossil fuel as an energy source to renewables, like solar, wind and biogas.

However, the sector is still evolving and there are challenges. With more than 45 million people employed in the textile and garment industry, finding ways to stabilize and grow the industry is crucial for the country and its people.

The textile sector in India is one of the oldest industries, dating back several centuries. As a result, generations of weavers and garment producers survive on the income and assurance of the industry, either as entrepreneurs or employees of companies. A major critique of the industry is that outdated machinery and models often impact productivity and profits of many.

“It doesn’t work to just add solar to an existing machine. It has to be designed with solar in mind. Only then will it be efficient and cost-effective,” says Kunal Vaid, Director of Resham Sutra, a social energy enterprise delivering sustainable energy solutions for rural livelihoods using innovative technology and renewable resources for silk production.

Resham Sutra’s range of affordable electric reeling machines – many of which are powered by solar energy and use 10 per cent of the power of a standard motorized machine – vastly improve working conditions for women reeling silk from cocoons. This proved to be a huge time and energy saver as traditionally, a process called thigh-reeling was employed – one which was physically demanding and considered undignified labour resulting in younger people opting out of the industry.

Like what we have seen from Resham Sutra, investing in newer models of equipment can help replace time-intensive manual work, saving labour-hours, increasing productivity and gaining market competitiveness. Sophisticated technology that ensures efficiency in time, energy and investment can future-proof the industries for generations to come.

This is where DRE can play a pivotal role – in driving modern and efficient systems for the industry while accelerating scale. Advancements in renewables, its access and flexibility to serve the most remote parts of India and the use of information technology to manage and monitor energy use and storage can drastically enhance the output and quality of textiles and garments in the country.

Another recent example where Banarasi sarees are being produced through the use of DRE machinery is testament to this. The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) supported Mohammad Gulzar from Mahmoodpur village in Varanasi to link his looms to decentralized solar-powered machines for energy and time-efficient production of sarees, while contributing to lower carbon emissions. The institute set up a hybrid solar charge controller that transfers power from solar panels to an inverter that is connected to Gulzar’s saree. The surplus power gets stored in lithium batteries for back-up. As a result, Gulzar is able to use his loom without the regular delays caused by power cuts.

These powerful examples, and the gradual integration of DRE in the Indian market can push for quality, efficiency and increased output in India’s textile industry. The first step to make this happen is to seriously drive efforts towards the application of DRE in every textile domain including powering of mills, looms, transport, and distribution systems.

If the domestic textile industry is to match the growing demand of the market and compete with other global players, scaling this approach now and fast is critical. Further, it has tremendous potential to rejuvenate the industry, propelling beautiful traditional designs while improving the country’s income, offering millions the confidence to expand their trade and drive social and economic mobility. While the government has taken practical steps through its Solar Energy Scheme for Powerlooms, more collaborative efforts to integrate DRE in textile and garment sectors can truly drive success for the Indian industry.