Hundreds of millions of people across India were left without power recently in one of the world’s worst blackouts, trapping miners, stranding train travelers and plunging hospitals into darkness when grids collapsed two days in a row. The power failures hit states with a combined population of around 700 million, hurting Indians’ pride as the country seeks to emerge as a major force on the international stage.
There was a technical reason for the failure of this biggest outage. However, the issue of power shortage is grave in India. There are over 400 million people in India who have no access to energy. They resort to the use of kerosene fuel, which releases more than 190 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment and claims 1.5 million lives each year. Twenty-two-year-old Yashraj Khaitan, a fresh graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, to turn down a job offer from Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of wireless network equipment, and to start his own company- Gram Power. The venture, he founded along with a batchmate Jacob Dickinson, enables villagers to produce and store renewable energy. It helps them integrate and generate energy out of biomass, solar panels or wind..
Says Yashraj Khaitan, Founder and CEO of Gram Power, “Our innovation does two things – allows people to leapfrog from no power to a highly efficient smart microgrid, and enables them to use their disposable income instead of savings to purchase power. We believe that we have the potential to mirror the cell phone revolution in the energy industry.” While on a university project to identify challenges faced by rural India, Khaitan met a grassroots innovator in a remote village in Bharatpur, who had built a vehicle out of junkyard parts to transport people.
In another village, he noticed that children were unable to study due to lack of electricity and had to inhale toxic fumes from kerosene lamps. This spurred the young innovators to devise their own energy solution for low-income consumers. “Initially, there was uncertainty about this innovation. My parents told me to get some corporate experience first,” says Khaitan, who was motivated to work on electrification after he experienced the power of jugaad, or local innovation, in rural India. The Gram Power model helps rural consumers bypass conventional grid supplies and also costs less than the monthly spend on kerosene. Consumers pay Rs 75 per month under the pay-as-you-go model for standard grid connection instead of spending Rs 200 on kerosene and cell phone charging.
Gram Power set up India’s first ‘Smart Microgrid’ in a village close to Todaraisingh Mandal in Tonk district of Rajasthan, which had no connection to the state electricity grid. The startup now supplies power to around 200 people, allowing them to operate CFL bulbs, TVs, fans, buttermilk machines, radios and other common household appliances.
“Our smart grid site is the only village in the entire area that is receiving reliable on demand power 24×7,” says Khaitan. The service includes innovative metering and monitoring devices that allows people to purchase power in prepaid schemes. In centralised electricity systems such as the national grid, around 65 per cent of energy gets wasted due to theft, pilferage, heat loss in transmission lines and power stations. Gram Power’s technology detects and eliminates energy theft and pilferage to increase energy distribution efficiency. According to Eric Brewer, vice-president of infrastructure at Google and a professor at UCBerkeley who mentors Gram Power, people in rural areas are historically left out because the set up costs are too high, whether for grid connection or for home solar systems.
He says that Microgrids spread these costs across more homes, and the Gram Power solution further reduces costs via efficiency and clever financing. For example, just Rs 10 per day buys enough prepaid recharge for 9 hours of lighting, 6 hours of a ceiling fan and TV, and charging a cellphone. A local entrepreneur purchases bulk energy credit from Gram Power and then sells it to the locals using Gram Power’s prepaid energy selling device. Apart from generating grassroots employment, this makes power affordable, allowing consumers to use their disposable incomes to purchase power. Yashraj said their smart grid site is the only village in the entire area receiving reliable power on demand round the clock. “Consumers pay Rs 75 per month under pay-as-you-go model for uninterrupted nine-hour power supply, which is less than the money they spend on kerosene,” he said.
According to him, this benefit should be compared with villagers shelling out Rs 10 for a one-time recharge of their cellphone from a neighboring electrified village. “The beauty of the scheme is that villagers can buy power as per their need under a prepaid system with devices for metering and monitoring in place. The project effectively eliminates power theft and pilferage,” he claimed.
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
According to Khalid Isar, country general manager at Alibaba.com India, Gram Power provides a perfect example of how a young entrepreneur can access the materials needed online in order to develop cutting-edge technology off line. Alibaba.com has given grants to Khaitan and also helped him in the initial stage of his project to source suppliers. Khaitan, who earlier has been involved in solar cell research at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, pitched his company at various business competitions in the US, winning many of them. This way, the startup raised seed capital of US $80,000 in the form of grants from Alibaba.com, Intel Corp, the world’s largest maker of computer chips and UC Berkeley.
Last year, US space agency NASA selected Gram Power’s technology among the top-10 cleantech innovations from around the world. One of the attendees at the conference was a Swiss company, which was so impressed by their work that it made an angel investment of around US $1 million (Rs 5 crore) in Gram Power this year. Gram Power, which has already powered 10 villages in Rajasthan, is now looking to form strong partnerships to increase access to their technology through state and central renewable energy ministries.
The startup has a target to deploy 20 self owned smart microgrids with 250 kilowatt peak of generation, catering to almost 40,000 people over the next 12 months. It is also working on a contract with the Rajasthan government to operate, manage, and make around 80 sustainable solar microgrids in rural Rajasthan. Gram Power is now betting big to eliminate power theft, lower payment collection expenses, and intelligently integrate different forms of renewable energy generation with the national grid.
“Our smart grid technology can sustainably create access to electricity for millions living without this basic resource,” says Khaitan. Khaitan is looking for partnerships to increase access to this technology through state and central agencies. We certainly hope that the several state governments will take cue of this righteous innovation and will try lightening up the lives in their rural areas. Similarly, we also anticipate that IITians and IIM graduates need to emulate Khaitan and do some solid contribution towards nation-building than just pocketing lofty salaries.