For the past few years, I’ve been traveling to India to help with our work on energy access. Last April, we formally launched Smart Power for Rural Development, a $75 million initiative that seeks to address energy poverty through an innovative mini-grid solution that provides electricity to rural villages. These models provide home lighting and electricity for economic uses like powering banks, small shops, and Internet kiosks. Building up inclusive, rural economies is what differentiates our initiative from the many other excellent efforts illuminating homes with solar lanterns or other systems.
Currently, the Smart Power initiative has more than 70 plants operating and the early results are encouraging:
- 72 percent reduction in kerosene use
- 87 percent of children able to study up to 2 hours longer after sunset
- 91 percent of women reporting greater flexibility with domestic chores
I love reading about these results. But I wanted to see the impact for myself.
After landing in the bustling city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, one of our operational partners, OMC, took us to visit four nearby villages where they’ve installed solar plants and mini-grids. These plants and mini-grids follow the Smart Power model, which provides power to an anchor load (in this case telecom towers), consumers at home, and small enterprises.
We’d start each visit with a community meeting. When asked who already had access to power, many hands would go up. And when asked who wanted it, many more would raise, reminding me of a big question I was sweating as we were shaping the strategy for Smart Power: would poor villagers pay for power at rates that made the business model sustainable?
At least in these villages, the answer was a resounding yes.
As we’d walk around the village, people would often welcome us into their homes and talk to us about how their lives have improved with access to power. I’m always excited to see how children are mesmerized by this new source of light, letting them play in courtyards after dark or study later in the evening for the next day’s lessons (while thinking about playing in courtyards). But one thing that struck me was the villager’s response: sure, they were grateful for their newfound access to power, but they’re also customers, and as customers, they were appropriately demanding and pushed on pricing, expanding use, and other things people do when they’re paying for something they value.
Beyond home lighting, you could see many ways that people were using power to earn more money. In one village, we met a craftsman who was creating fine materials with embroidered patterns. By employing a moveable light, he was now able to work after dark—just one of the many examples that we saw where power was helping people improve their livelihoods.
We also witnessed the beginnings of the next rung on the energy ladder—the development of markets. In one town, we saw how vibrant the market was after sundown. New shop stalls were being built near the power plant with the cost of electricity built into the overall rent.
We spoke with the owner of a gas station who had once powered his station with three diesel generators because unreliable electricity from the national grid would cause problems, like power fluctuations that damaged his pumps. The reliability of the mini- grid’s power allowed him to remove two of those generators, saving him money on fuel costs and equipment maintenance. And now they’re considering opening a small convenience store on the same property.
While I’m heartened by the people that I’ve met and the changes that I’ve seen, there’s still lots of work to be done. We need to develop innovations that bring costs down, attract new operators and investors, help government develop supportive policies, and catalyze power-based entrepreneurship. And we have to make sure that development in rural villages leads to more inclusive economies and greater community resilience. The hard part isn’t over yet. But years of hard work by our team, grantees, and other partners are starting to create measurable impact and wonderful stories.