Quality livelihoods depend on access to energy. Paul Meissner, Ph.D., GSBITM director, is joined by leading social entrepreneurs in clean energy to share findings from the Center’s recent field research. We will also unveil the latest edition of the Energy Map and our vision of the potential for innovative technical and business approaches to distributed energy.
This new approach is informed by over 10 years of experience, with more than 170 social enterprises that have impacted the lives of over 80 million people. As practitioners on a global scale, we predict that a convergence of technology and business model innovations will disrupt how off-grid energy is produced, distributed, and financed in the next 10 years.
Our own GSB Fellow, Kirsten Petersen, has been updating her blog on her experience working with GSBI Alumni, Solar Sister in Uganda. Her latest article "Finding myself in the Solar Revolution of Uganda" touches on her unique perspecitve as an up and coming Masters engineering student looking at distrubuted power in developing countries admidst her passion in solar photovoltaic and how the two can mix together for an amazing future career!
This article was originally posted on Dowser.org. You can view the original article here.
The collapse of India’s power grid cast 670 million people into darkness—nearly one in 10 inhabitants of our planet. It called into question the dominant logic of a fragile centralized power system with chronic outages, growth in demand that greatly outstrips new capacity, yet leaves a fourth of India’s population without basic electricity.
Conventional “solutions” like centralized coal-fired plants and continued price subsidies for energy from polluting fossil plants and the wide use of back-up diesel generators will only exacerbate the scale of future crisis. These subsidies are, in part, motivated by the risks of political instability in the presence of the rising inflation in energy and food prices. Ironically, amongst those prone to protest are farmers forced to run diesel-powered pumps under widespread drought conditions caused by climate change. The day of reckoning for India’s badly inadequate energy infrastructure has arrived, and a plethora of social entrepreneurs is developing solutions that offer great promise.
Social entrepreneurs in India are pioneering a decentralized energy paradigm, characterized by improving efficiencies that bring energy cost into parity with grid alternatives, and contribute to economic development and the eradication of poverty in rural areas. These new technologies provide affordable clean energy through community-scale micro-grids, solar home systems, and solar lanterns that displace the need for subsidized kerosene and provide a hundred times the lumens for a fraction of the cost.
Bihar-based Husk Power Systems’ standalone mini-power plants convert rice husk waste into affordable off-grid energy to over 300 villages at a total capital cost of less than $1.3/watt—less than mega thermal power plants. Each plant is operated by a village entrepreneur, who manages the plant and collects payment from electricity users. SELCO India, operating out of Karnataka and Gujarat, provides customized solar home systems to meet specific customer load requirements with payment plans that dramatically reduce the total five-year cost of energy. Working with commercial banks, rural banks and credit cooperatives, it has made clean energy financially feasible and has over 135,000 solar systems installed. In Kolkata, ONergy has become a valued-added reseller of an array of solar home systems, lanterns, clean cooking stoves and energy-efficient appliances, also providing critical financing, service and support infrastructure to over 150 villages in east India through their Renewable Energy Centers.
While the distributed solutions of these social mission enterprises seek to provide the more than 300 million Indian citizens who are off the grid with access to affordable clean energy, the problem remains that the government continues to subsidize kerosene and diesel, with market-distorting impacts.
On the technology front, solar energy in India is benefitting from positive tailwinds, including a 75 percent reduction in the cost per watt of solar panels in the last five years alone. The policy front is less positive, however, with perverse headwinds designed to prop up a failed central power system. These need to shift to support for potential for these and other distributed clean energy solutions to serve the future of India, its people, and its environment. India could be a showcase, and grassroots social entrepreneurs are prepared to be the pathfinders. The day of reckoning has arrived.
Jim Koch is Energy Sector Director for the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and co-founder of the Global Social Benefit IncubatorTM
According to the World Vision website, "more than 75 percent of Cambodian children enroll in primary school, with more girls enrolling in the past decade. However, a majority of children repeat grades, taking an average of 10 years to complete their primary education. According to UNICEF, less than half of all students complete primary school. Only 24 percent of boys and 21 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary school, with completion rates much lower than that."
GSBI alum Kamworks has a mission, "to provide Sustainable solar solutions for off-grid communities. Knowing that about 80% of the Cambodian population are living in the rural areas and have no access to an electricity grid, solar electricity could be an economical and clean solution for these people."
One of their biggest issues right now is lack of awarenss about solar energy. According to their website, "market research shows that only about 10% of the rural people in Cambodia know the concept of solar energy."
Coffea arabica bushes on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, a large and solitary volcano in East Africa, yield red-ripe cherries making their way as Fairtrade coffee beans to western markets and major coffeehouses such as Starbucks. Smallholder farmers will soon receive a bonus of cash for their crops. The good news is that the price of coffee this harvest season in Uganda is likely to rise due to heavy rains earlier this year that limited the crop size.
There’s little incentive for the farmers to save any of that cash influx, however. Village banks are few and far between; moreover, they charge account maintenance and transaction fees that rapidly sip away the meager income. Moreover, with rampant inflation in Uganda and devaluation of the shilling, it’s a pretty sure bet that their hard-earned money will be worth less tomorrow than it is today. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo describe how the poor save without banks in their recently published Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, often “brick by brick.” The poor want to invest in something that has future value – just like everyone else on the planet.
We witnessed this paradigm last week on a visit to Mt. Elgon with the CEO of Solar Sister (GSBI ’11) Katherine Lucey, and her amazing team of women entrepreneurs. “We” included myself; Social Benefit Operations Director Sherrill Dale (for those who don’t know Sherrill, she’s the one who makes our signature Global Social Benefit Incubator program happen); Chair of the Center’s Advisory Board Jeff Miller; and his incredible wife, Karen. We’d arrived on Mt. Elgon after visiting other GSBI alums ToughStuff (GSBI ’09) and KopoKopo (GSBI ’11) in Nairobi, and re:char (GSBI ’10) in Bungoma, about a 10 hour drive from Nairobi across the Great Rift Valley. Crossing into Uganda and reaching our base at Sipi Falls was another day’s journey.
Solar Sister is an amazing social enterprise by any standard. Already employing 177 women and affording them economic opportunity through an Avon-style sales model, the team strives to bring “light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in rural Africa.” They are succeeding, and though their goal of scaling to 5,000 sisters in 5 countries within 5 years sounds ambitious, they may well exceed it.
Each Solar Sister carries a bag of products matched to different market needs in their sales territories. In the bag are ToughStuff’s affordable, modular solar-powered energy products including lighting, mobile phone chargers, and a D-battery form factor device that powers radios with the flexible solar panel module. These are the top three uses of electricity for the poor, with TVs next on the list. Also in the bag is Angaza Design’s (GSBI ’11) super-bright, sleek solar-powered lantern that lights up a typical single-room home for an average family of 7.
The ToughStuff radio-powering device is a big hit; we all like entertainment! And many purchasers of mobile phone chargers create microenterprises that provide their communities more affordable, and sustainable, ways to charge their mobile phones, critical given the information access and services now enabled by mobile technologies. (The power of mobile is well recognized within Africa with organizations such as iHub in Nairobi fostering mobile innovation. Read more...).
Lifeline Energy (GSBI ’04) CEO Kristine Pearson’s excellent blog on the burning issue of kerosene use set the context for the contrast between those who had invested in solar powered lighting and those who had not. At the nearest town’s fuel station, we saw lines of young children filling empty 500 ml plastic bottles with clear kerosene at nearly 3000 shillings per liter, a huge fraction of the average daily income on Mt. Elgon. It wasn’t at all hard to imagine the picture Kristine had painted of an even younger child drinking the kerosene as if it were a beverage. Nor was it difficult to see how the lack of light hindered learning and damaged health.
The villagers we visited with Solar Sister had different stories to tell. They had invested in solar lights after receiving a bolus of income – it doesn’t come weekly or biweekly, but seasonally, perhaps after the coffee harvest. They were reaping the economic benefits of not purchasing kerosene every day. Depending on the lighting product, payback can be less than a month, with future savings fueling livelihoods, education, and housing.
Lidia, the very first Solar Sister, is a successful entrepreneur in her village. Her husband works for her. We visited her mother in another village and demonstrated the Angaza light to her great delight. She plans to open a store in her village - what a great holiday gift from daughter to mother – light and livelihood!
Another family we visited was using the 1700 shillings per day savings to cover school fees for the girls, a very high return investment according to Banerjee and Duflo. A third family was using the savings to expand their home, brick by brick.
Lucey shows how sustainable businesses with significant social impact can be “powered by smart investment in women entrepreneurs.” Applications for the 2012 Global Social Benefit Incubator, our tenth year, are now available for inspired, passionate, and compassionate social entrepreneurs like Lucey and her sisters. They light up all of our lives!