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Off the grid, but not powerless

How Gram Power is electrifying remote and often inaccessible villages in Rajasthan

Geetanjali Krishna 

Solar, Power, Village, Micro-grids

Rural electrification is an oft-heard buzz word in development circles. Yet, according to the 2011 census, only 54 per cent of rural households have been electrified, many of which are in areas too remote to be connected to the power grid. That is why in the last five years, off-grid solar power has emerged as a viable strategy for rural electrification.

Gram Power, a startup by University of Berkeley alumni Yashraj Khaitan and Jacob Dickinson, is doing exactly this — building 5-10 kilowatt micro-grids in inaccessible villages of Rajasthan and providing users with “smart meters” that allow them to regulate their power consumption. This allows rural users the flexibility to recharge their power, much in the same way as they recharge their phones. Just as the advent of cell phones enabled villagers to communicate with the outside world by bypassing the conventional landline network, micro-grids have the potential to bypass the national power grid with its fraught distribution network.

Here’s how it works. Gram Power installs distribution lines from the solar power generation station at every home in the village, along with a proprietary smart prepaid meter that monitors power consumption and optimises the supply and demand of power. Then it recruits a local entrepreneur to operate and maintain the plant. Gram Power sells energy credits at a wholesale price to the entrepreneur, who, in turn, earns a commission by selling these credits to the consumers. The consumers pay Rs 75 per month under the pay-as-you-go model for the standard grid connection. A recharge of just Rs 10 per day buys nine hours of light, six hours of a ceiling fan and television and, of course, cell phone charging whenever they want it.

“In 2012, we set up India’s first smart micro-grid (solar power generation unit with ‘smart meters’ in every user household) in rural Rajasthan,” says Khaitan, CEO of Gram Power. “Jacob and I built the system with our own hands with the village community — erecting poles, setting up solar panels, connecting batteries and wiring our first generation smart meters.” The duo, at that time, had no idea how what began as a college project would pan out in practice. But then they met boys who hadn’t been able to get married because no girl wanted to come and live in a village without electricity. They saw children who couldn’t study in the evening, unless they were willing to inhale toxic fumes from kerosene lamps. “When I realised how electricity impacted the everyday lives of the villagers, I was sure of one thing — Gram Power would scale,” he says. Gram Power has since built 30 smart micro-grids, with 20 more planned this year.

Initially, this scaling was possible only because Khaitan was able to tap into government rural electrification schemes. “In the first two years, 90 per cent of our revenues came from government schemes, which paid the capital costs (Rs 20-35 lakh, depending on the capacity) of setting up each micro-grid,” he says. Today, however, with the easing of norms around the privatisation of power, Gram Power’s products, especially the smart meters, have found favour with private power utilities. “This year, we have received a contract to install 10,000 smart meters on the national grid with a couple of private utilities,” Khaitan reveals. “We’re hoping for this number to grow as it will greatly increase the efficiency of power distribution.”

Solar, Power, Village, Micro-grids
With their proprietary smart meters, consumers can monitor their consumption online, room by room and appliance by appliance. “There will be no more cryptic electricity bills and consumers will be able to recharge their energy meters just as they recharge their cell phones,” Khaitan says. Such meters will substantially reduce incidences of power theft, which are responsible for much of the distribution losses that the Indian grid today faces. “According to an industry estimate, the power lost by the national grid in one year can supply free power to the entire Northeast for, believe it or not, 18 years!” says Khaitan. “Imagine the savings.”

The beauty of Gram Power lies not only in its smart meters, solar home solutions and micro-grids, but also in its smart service plans. “We’d noted that the lack of community engagement makes the best of projects unsustainable in the long run. This is why we’ve created a system whereby we transfer ownership of the micro-grid to the community once it is up and running,” says Khaitan. They’ve also devised an innovative, recurring impact model for corporate and individual donors. Donors can furnish the seed capital for providing each household with a “Solar Home System”. For the next 18 months, the household then contributes a small monthly installment to cover the cost of the system. After that, the system belongs to the user, and the seed capital of the donor can be used to service another set of households.

The future, says Khaitan, looks bright for off-the-grid energy solutions. “The market of rural consumers across the country, and indeed the world, without access to conventional grid-based electricity is huge,” he says. Gram Power is currently working on a project in Africa that is expected to touch the lives of a million families in four years. “I believe that social development and enterprise need not be mutually exclusive,” says Khaitan as he talks about his vision for a brighter future. Gram Power is shining the light on one way in which this gap can be bridged.


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