Every Earth Day, those of us who live in the perpetual glow of electronic devices, screens and city lights are implored to reduce our energy use to soften our carbon footprint. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’re tackling a rather counter-intuitive challenge: how do we stimulate energy consumption?
Energy is a core enabler for socio-economic transformation: by powering livelihoods it empowers lives. Yet more than one billion people around the world have limited or no access to the quantities of electricity necessary for economic productivity, further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Without adequate electricity, machines cannot run, access to information technology can be limited and manual labor, studying or saving lives must end at dusk.
I am reminded of a recent visit to a remote part of India, where one could see a strong, sturdy power line hover over a community, only to bypass their village and go on to power other towns.
The impact is most notable in rural areas. Despite well-intentioned policies and political will, many governments struggle with inadequate resources and limited capacity to deliver power to the last mile. Meanwhile, energy providers tend to overlook these hamlets as their current energy consumption habits do not seem to justify the significant investments required to expand capacity in these areas. I am reminded of a recent visit to a remote part of India, where one could see a strong, sturdy power line hover over a community, only to bypass their village and go on to power other towns, other lives. In such places, we need to create energy demand, not curb it.
This month, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Smart Power for Rural Development initiative successfully electrified more than 100 such villages in three of India’s most energy-poor states, where up to 60 percent of people have little or no access to a dependable source of electricity. By building decentralized mini-grids – miniature versions of the main grid that generate enough renewably-sourced electricity to power entire villages – upwards of 40,000 people now have access to clean, reliable power to help lift themselves out of poverty in ways that are also good for the planet. The program is run by Smart Power India (SPI), which brings together the energy service providers, technology companies, and end-users that comprise the mini-grid ecosystem, adapting for the needs and potential of each village. Importantly, the program is helping consumers realize the power of energy, facilitating demand and thus improving incentives to provide clean and reliable supply as the village GDP grows.
Most remarkably, communities are rapidly transforming themselves by embracing new opportunities to use electricity productively. In the village of Kamlapur in Uttar Pradesh, SPI helped a local entrepreneur set up a new business to manufacture garments with the use of electric sewing machines. Following a two-month training, 50 local women were employed from the community, resulting in increased incomes for families that traditionally depended on agricultural wages. The business is producing 2,000 units per month and is beginning to entertain orders from popular retailers across India.
In Gumla District in the state of Jharkhand, SPI assisted women farmers who had come together to purchase rice hullers and better meet demand at local markets, ending their reliance on middlemen. Thanks to consistent electricity access to run their new equipment, in the time it takes to hull 20 kilos by hand, up to 2 metric tons are now produced and sold. More than 75 small and local farmers have benefitted from this initiative, in part financed and supported through the program.
From enterprises and initiatives such as agricultural processing, refrigeration for commercial purposes, to workshops, shop lighting, and water purification, access to a reliable source of electricity is a tremendous force multiplier for unlocking economic potential. Even more encouraging is the fact that women, girls, and youth are leveraging this access to seize new opportunities for themselves, their communities and families.
We need to accelerate universal electrification sustainably, and we need to do so now. Every day that passes without power is another day inequality deepens. Serious attempts are being made to universalize grid access, but often, the fastest and most cost-efficient manner employed by governments is expanding capacity in traditional forms of power generation, leading to the negative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. By facilitating demand for renewable energy, Smart Power has developed an economically viable model that helps deliver clean power to those who need it most.
The road ahead is still a long one towards building more inclusive and environmentally conscious societies, but the communities across these 100 villages prove that access to clean and reliable energy is a fundamental step forward to an empowered future.
Photos and quotes are courtesy of Smart Power India. This piece is part of our 2017 Earth Day series.