To accelerate its goal of providing electricity to homes, schools, and businesses in remote, off-grid communities, IEEE Smart Village—a priority initiative of the IEEE Foundation—is in the process of launching for-profit social enterprises that will be owned and run by entrepreneurs in those communities.
When Tara McCartney learned about IEEE Smart Village more than a year ago, it was just starting in India. A partnership was born: McCartney understood the country’s infrastructure and policy challenges as the founder in 2013 of United for Hope, a nongovernmental organization that helps people in rural communities access clean water and electricity, and IEEE will provide the seed funding and technical know-how from its prior work in Africa and Haiti as well as a pilot program in Ladakh, a region in northern India.
Together, by May, they plan to deliver solar electricity to some 100 homes and 30 businesses in the Kushinagar district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most densely populated state. The venture is being launched through the for-profit company Shakti Empowerment Solutions (SES), which has agreed to run the business and employ local workers to supervise solar-power stations. United for Hope is training the workers to maintain the stations and educating locals on using the service.
“I was keen to work with IEEE,” McCartney says, “because it understands the importance of a holistic approach to helping people in rural communities stand on their own two feet.”
LIGHTING UP INDIA
Most rural communities in India are connected to state grids, which often are unreliable, with power going out for several days at a time. The grids break down for several reasons: an aging infrastructure, an increase in demand over the years, and a lack of maintenance.
As a pilot project, SES is working with IEEE Smart Village to install a solar-power station in the village of Tirmasahun, with a population of about 4,000. The station will be equipped with photovoltaic solar panels to charge portable 12-watt-hour battery packs that are distributed to residents and small businesses.
The batteries are lithium ferrous phosphate for lighter weight and up to 10 times the life of sealed lead-acid batteries. The packs come with two pre-wired 3.5-watt LED bulbs, each one equivalent to a 25-watt incandescent bulb. Both LED bulbs can run for 14 hours, or one alone for 31 hours. The pack also includes a cellphone charging port. The customer typically would bring back the pack every three days; however, there is an option for a daily recharge with a two-way delivery service.
Because families in India’s rural communities often live with relatives, one battery pack in a household could bring electricity to about eight people.
Household customers will pay 190 rupees (US $2.80) per month for the service. The price is comparable to what they would pay for disposable batteries and kerosene, which when burned in a lamp can be harmful to health.
By bringing a solar-power company to such communities, the venture not only creates jobs, it also allows businesses to stay open longer and students to study at night.
In two years, McCartney expects to provide service to at least 10 villages, and up to 60 villages in five years. SES also has plans to install microgrids near homes to power large appliances, as well as provide more service to businesses, schools, and government buildings.
McCartney already has signed up 130 customers in Tirmasahun, which is the limit of how many the station can serve. She anticipates having more customers than her initial solar-power station will be able to accommodate.
THE PARTNERSHIP PROCESS
To become one of IEEE Smart Village’s partners is no easy feat. McCartney and her United for Hope staff spent several months surveying the community about its needs and how much locals were willing to pay for electricity. She then submitted a business plan to IEEE Smart Village, and expects to receive funding soon. Organizations that partner with IEEE Smart Village must give back to the community, such as providing education opportunities to students and adults.
It can be difficult to find entrepreneurs in rural communities to help run the business. Residents who receive a college education often leave to work in a big city. That’s why IEEE Smart Village, in partnership with SES, has to provide those who do work on the solar-power stations with training on building and maintaining the solar-power stations. Smart Village volunteers also help mentor the entrepreneurs on how to run the business.
IEEE Smart Village is seeking more partners in Southeast Asia. For more information, visit the IEEE Smart Village website.