by Andrew Satter, originally published by Climate Progress, Resilience.org: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-07-16/watch-how-solar-power-is-transforming-rural-india
Sun-bleached brick and concrete
houses dot the landscape.
Cows and buffaloes compete with rickshaws,
people and the occasional SUV on the only road into town. And when the
sun goes down, life comes to a screeching halt.
In other words, this
rural village in India’s northern plains is an unlikely place for the
beginning of a technological revolution.
Yet it is here, as I watch employees of one of the country’s many
fast-growing clean energy startups install solar panels on a local
villager’s roof - their sixth installation of the day - that I realize I
am witnessing something transformational.
It is a glimpse into the
future of how the world’s rural poor could access electricity: off-grid,
distributed, renewable, and most importantly, affordable.
happening all over rural India and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and
is turning the entire narrative around energy and development on its
Watch a villager discuss the challenges presented by a lack of electricity:
Business As Usual Is Failing
More than a billion people throughout the world lack reliable access
to electricity. Many live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The costs - in
terms of lost economic potential and of impacts to personal health -
Throughout the world, nearly four million people
die prematurely each year due to pollution from dirty energy sources
used for cooking and lighting. And the light from the most widely used
sources, kerosene and candles, just isn’t very good.
The dim orange glow
is hard on the eyes, limiting the ability of children to study or of
business owners to illuminate their stores. Not to mention the increased
risks of fire from the open flame.
And of course, there is the impact of fossil-fuel consumption on climate change, which is already affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations through drought, sea-level rise and extreme weather.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the status quo isn’t working
for the world’s rural poor.
In India, after decades of building out
centralized, large-scale, heavily-polluting fossil-fuel power plants,
nearly 400 million people are still without power (of course, after massive countrywide blackouts
that left 800 million without power in 2012, some would argue the grid
is failing urban populations as well).
India’s new leadership called attention
to this problem, with Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s government saying
it wants every home to be able to run at least one light bulb by 2019
with the help of solar.
by some in the international community to double down on a broken
model, but the grid is not likely to deliver for those who need it most
any time soon. The International Energy Agency (IEA), acknowledges that
trying to solve the energy-access crisis through a business-as-usual
approach will still leave a billion people without power by 2030.
Power From Above
The roof I am standing on belongs to Govind Singh, a tall man in his
early 60s who has spent much of his life working in agriculture, about
the only industry in town. Singh’s house, like many in rural India, is
connected to power lines. But that hardly means he has power. During our
brief two-hour visit, I count four outages.
“In our area, there are too many problems with electricity, sometimes
the electric poles break down and other such issues,” Singh said, as
his daughter makes Indian chai in the next room.
That uncertainty takes its toll on the family’s daily life. Singh and
his family never know if they will have power to light their home,
charge a cell phone or plug in a fan. Many nights there is no
electricity at all. “When there is a power cut, we have to light up
candles and lanterns, which make the walls dirty [with smoke],” Singh
Singh recently heard from his neighbor about a new company that
offers a way to help him keep the lights on. The company, Simpa Energy,
the Indian subsidiary of the US-based Simpa Networks, offers an
innovative pay-as-you-go model that allows even the world’s poorest
citizens to buy chunks of clean, reliable energy, a few rupees at a
Customers use their cell phones (ubiquitous in India) to purchase an
access code that they then punch into a small box connected to solar
panels outside. A few seconds later, a bright LED light illuminates the
room. The best part is, unlike kerosene and diesel, dirty and costly
fuels that are not renewable, the customer eventually pays for the
system outright and future power is free.
“Without light, one can’t do anything,” Singh told me.
Of course, renewables have long been seen as a solution to ending
energy poverty. But for decades, the products were too expensive and too
unreliable. All that has changed.
In recent years, a new crop of
entrepreneurs have taken advantage of cheap solar panels and advances in
battery and LED lighting technology to create a growing industry that
puts power generation directly in the hands of citizens rather than an
unreliable energy grid.
Many of these companies have flocked to Uttar
Pradesh, India’s largest and one of its poorest states, to put their
business models to the test.
Building The Future Of Energy
Simpa is only one of many success stories. Founded in 2011, the
company has already doubled in size.
According to Paul Needham, Simpa’s
CEO, the company has nearly 2,000 customers (a customer is an entire
Indian family, so the number of people gaining access to clean energy is
much larger) and is growing by 20 to 30 percent each month. By the end
of the year, Simpa expects to have 600 kilowatts of solar installed
serving up to 75,000 people.
Another company we visited during our time in India, OMC Power, has
seen a similar trajectory. OMC’s model is a bit different. The company
builds mini solar power plants - about 36 kilowatts each - that charge
everything from large cell phone towers to hundreds of small
battery-powered LED lanterns.
Each day, OMC employees deliver
fully-charged lanterns to customers, and then return the following
morning to pick up the lanterns for recharge. Compared to other lighting
options, the lanterns are a good deal for customers for whom every
“We provide a lighting solution that is approximately 120 rupees ($2)
a month. And kerosene costs [customers] approximately three to four
dollars a month,” says Dinesh Gupta, OMC’s head of Rollout and
Operations. "And those figures don’t even take into account the savings
from the health impacts of not burning dirty kerosene."
In 2011, OMC had one plant running. By the end of 2012 they had ten
throughout Uttar Pradesh. Gupta expects to hit 100 or more plants by the
end of 2014.
Traveling around from village to village with these companies, I saw
countless uses for the clean LED lights: rural dairy farmers who use the
lanterns to milk their cows before sunrise (one farmer says cows aren’t
a fan of kerosene smoke and swears they now give better milk); a cohort
of women sari weavers who can work longer hours to make extra money for
themselves and their family; families with children who have a safe and
clean way to study at night; and shopkeepers and other small business
owners whose lights shine brighter than competitors.
All were able to
get reliable power without emitting one ounce of CO2 during usage.
Access to solar has transformed the lives of these dairy farmers:
“When I had to use [a] generator, I had to spend more money and incur
more losses if customers didn’t come,” said Sarvesh Kumar Singh, who
owns a small convenience store in a village 100 km from the majestic Taj
Mahal. “But now I don’t face issues like that. I keep my shop open for
much longer, and I don’t have to spend money on the fuel for the
Harish Hande, the co-founder of SELCO and recipient of the
prestigious Magsaysay Award, often described as the Nobel Prize of Asia,
says how villagers are purchasing the lights are just as revolutionary
as the lights themselves. In many cases, the villagers had to take out a
loan to finance the lights, which introduced them to a whole new world
of banking and social entrepreneurship.
“As soon as people finish with a solar loan, they might take a loan
for a sewing machine,” Hande said. “Had they had the grid, they would
have not gone for a bank loan. And that’s the beauty of decentralized
energy, that people are able to move up the social ladder multiple
With the continued failure of the electric grid to reach India’s rural populations, demand for renewable energy is sure to rise.
Challenges - and Opportunities - Ahead
Thanks to impressive strides in recent years, analysts and companies
alike are pointing to the potential for the distributed energy model to
change the paradigm of how people receive and consume energy all over
Much like cellphones leapfrogged landlines for the rural poor
- you can bet few Indian villagers have ever seen a rotary phone - in
these rural areas, distributed solar will likely leapfrog the
In time, a large part of power generation in the developing world
could happen on the local level. Households will power themselves, and
local municipalities will build collective mini grids to power communal
structures like government buildings, schools and water treatment
plants, as well as to provide backup power to citizens.
won’t feel compelled to build new fossil fuel power plants, benefiting
the climate and the health of their citizens. And much like some of the
greatest innovations in cell phone technology came from the developing
world (mobile payment systems, for example), energy innovations will
trickle up to industrialized nations, as well.
Of course, to get there, incipient business models need to prove they
have long-term viability. While industry growth has been impressive -
since 2009, the market size has tripled worldwide
- many of the entrepreneurs I talked to in India said that getting the
financing they need to expand their operations remains a challenge.
Bankers are notoriously conservative about lending to companies whose
customer base consists almost exclusively of the poor, and many business
owners say financiers perceive their technology to be new and untested.
“We’re at a certain scale now that we require a different level of
investment,” says Rupesh Shah, a vice president at Simpa. “We were able
to get by in the first couple of years with grants and things like that,
but now we need more commercial capital.”
To power the entire world by 2030, the International Energy Agency calls for an additional investment
of $12 billion a year for mini-grid renewables and $7 billion a year
for off-grid renewables. To put that in perspective, oil and gas
companies receive $500 billion in government subsidies, and that doesn’t even take into account the billions they receive in private investment.
“What is desperately needed is public institutions to step in and
provide loan guarantees and other forms of risk-taking capital that can
help unlock the investment that’s required to really take this from a
relatively distributed, small-scale approach to something that really
takes on energy poverty and is able to eliminate this problem once and
for all,” said Justin Guay, Associate Director of the Sierra Club’s
International Climate Program.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
By 2035, global energy demand will increase by a third,
with a staggering 90 percent of that growth coming from developing
nations. The world is slowly recognizing the need to ensure the rural
poor are not left behind.
The Obama Administration’s Power Africa initiative,
which aims to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, is a good
start. But more needs to be done. And of course, for the sake of the
planet, as much of that power as possible needs to be clean and
Back in that village in rural Uttar Pradesh, a storm brews on the
horizon. Another power outage has plunged the town into impenetrable
darkness, illuminated only by brief flashes of distant lightning. Inside
Mr. Singh’s house, the Simpa employees work by flashlight to install
the final components of his new LED lighting system. The entire family
watches them work.
Finally, the lead technician asks Singh to punch his code into the
newly-installed access panel. A smiley face lights up the panel’s LCD
screen indicating the payment was successful, and Singh flips a switch.
His small house is instantly bathed in clear, white light. A broad smile
appears on his face. Next door, Singh’s neighbors are stuck in the
past, waiting for the grid to come back on. But here, in this house, the
future has arrived.
Andrew Satter is the Director of Video for the Center for
American Progress. This post and videos came from a recent trip to India
where he filmed a short documentary on off-grid solar’s impact on
global development. Visit www.americanprogress.org on July 17 to watch
the full video.