Sixty in one day. That’s how many eye cataract surgeries Dr. Ajeeth Kumar performs in and around Parsa, a poor village two hours from the state capital of Bihar, India. He runs a modern ophthalmology practice with a slit lamp, tonometer and a range of equipment: a scene taken for granted by many whose lives are powered by the hum of fully electrified cities. But here in India’s poverty belt, the convenience, productivity, and safety resulting from a reliable current of energy has only recently changed the game.
“I used to run this hospital with a diesel generator; we were always worried about the power going out,” said Dr. Kumar. “The last thing you want is a blackout in the middle of cataract surgery.”
Dr. Kumar’s patients have benefitted from 24/7 electricity from a solar mini-grid set up by Tara Urja in 2019. It’s one of 220 such grids in the Smart Power India (SPI) network, which for the last five years has been field-testing new technologies and business models that could take decentralized renewable energy from an off-grid alternative to a mainstream component for widespread rural electrification. Building on these foundations, Tata Power and The Rockefeller Foundation earlier this month unveiled TP Renewable Microgrid, a new venture with the ambition to build 10,000 microgrids to connect 5 million Indian households and reduce 1 million tons of carbon emissions annually. It is expected to be the world’s largest microgrid operator when completed.
This is a defining moment for bending the energy access curve. In the words of Amitabh Kant, the CEO of the Indian government’s think tank Niti Ayog, “This partnership is essential for the people of India and its rural communities, giving a thrust to a massive multiplier effect [energy can have] on India’s economy and move social indices forward in some of its most difficult terrains.”
Technology-driven + customer-centric = scale
The model’s technical success rests on improved microgrid technology, notably The Institute of Transformative Technology’s purpose-built utility-in-a-box (UiB), an innovation that not only protects sensitive equipment from the harsh heat of Indian summers and its torrential monsoons, but compresses these into a box stored beneath a solar panel, saving valuable square footage. It reduces build-time from months to a matter of weeks, with a significant cost reduction that makes the systems more commercially viable. UiB also facilities efficient assembly and smooth communication between the components of a microgrid–the solar panels, inverters, data-loggers, and smart meters that help manage customer demand and billing, and better predict peak load requirements.
But it’s equally the human component of this microgrid model that has made it scalable. Decentralized renewable energy for rural customers is often seen as an un-investible proposition because many perceive the poor as unwilling to pay. Through the work of Smart Power India, we have observed that when energy providers offer a high-quality service that is responsive to customer needs, users will pay, regardless of their socioeconomic status. By operating a service-oriented and demand-driven model, data from across the 220 mini-grids currently supported by SPI reveals an on-time collection rate of 96% to 98%.
By providing a competitively priced source of reliable power, TP Renewable Microgrid is poised to create some 10,000 new green jobs, support 100,000 rural enterprises, deliver irrigation to 400,000 local farmers, and improve access to health services and safe drinking water to communities they serve. This is how we can transform rural economies and lift millions from poverty.
“This partnership is essential for the people of India and its rural communities, giving a thrust to a massive multiplier effect [energy can have] on India’s economy and move social indices forward in some of its most difficult terrains.”
-Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Ayog
We cannot end poverty without first ending energy poverty
Energy poverty has an outsize impact on rural economies. Despite the enormous progress made in the past few years, at least 100 million Indians continue to have insufficient access to electricity, either because it is unavailable or unreliable. According to a large survey conducted by SPI and Johns Hopkins University in late 2018, almost half of rural enterprises in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rely on diesel or other expensive and polluting sources to power their businesses, eroding revenues and undermining economic mobility.
This new venture can change that reality. According to Sambodhi, a third-party evaluation group monitoring SPI’s portfolio of mini-grid projects, from 2015 to 2018 we have observed a doubling of energy consumption, and an average revenue increase of 35% for shops and 52% for commercial enterprises.
Access to sufficient and reliable electricity is transformational, and its domino effects on education, health and livelihoods can be immediate. Just a few weeks after a new microgrid was installed in Parsa, Ruby Kumari has doubled the number of sewing students in her training center by offering a night shift, and in the neighboring village of Derni, Ankit Singh was able to expand his school from 65 to 400 students by offering a digital class. Their impact is exponential, considering the livelihoods and opportunities programs like Ruby’s and Ankit’s can spark in the lives they touch.
As the sun set over the buzzing Derni market, power from the main grid flickered off; a daily reality. But with a choice to subscribe to reliable renewable power supplied by a local microgrid, for many in the market, life and livelihoods continued uninterrupted. In a country like India, where the grid is ubiquitous but woefully unreliable, distributed energy is providing an aspirational rural economy with a vital alternative that can ultimately become part of a robust, integrated and sustainable rural energy network.
This piece originally appeared on Forbes in November 2019 and reposted with permission.