Solar Energy Start-Ups Bring Light Off the Grid

ANTA ANA, Calif. — Nearly 1.5 billion people live without access to grid electricity. This means that, after the sun sets, 150 million households will continue their work by the dim light of kerosene lamps. These lamps that emit fumes with the same level of toxicity as two packs of cigarettes. When the fumes of 150 million kerosene lamps are combined, the aggregate carbon emission is the same as all of the cars in the UK.
Lack of access to electricity is not only harmful to individual health and the global environment,but is also an obstacle to economic growth.
Bharath Kumar is a candy-maker in the village of Tamkuha in northern India. He tries to get as much work done as he can before the local energy provider shuts the power off. When the power switches off unexpectedly early, Kumar is left to finish his work using kerosene lamps.
“If I knew that the power would be shut off an hour earlier, I would not have mixed the sugar in the flour. This is not the first time,” Kumar says, angrily.
India is home to one of the world’s largest off-the-grid populations. 300 million Indians – roughly a quarter of the country’s population – live without electricity.
Mera Gao Power is a solar energy start-up that seeks to bring electricity to India’s rural villages. Co-founders Nikhil Jaisinghani and Brian Shaad saw the potential in the market for solar energy microgrids. In 2010, they left their jobs and started Mera Gao Power, which now operates microgrids in 600 villages in the Sitapur district in India.
Their business model revolves around the idea of selling energy as a service. Mera Gao Power does not sell the technology to customers but rather provides it for a fee. This way, if the system malfunctions, the customers are not responsible. Selling energy as a service also eliminates the risk of buying an expensive micro-grid on an unstable income.
Mera Goa Power installs micro-grids that serve a minimum of 20 households. Customers pay 100 rupees ($1.60) for seven hours of LED lighting and mobile phone charging. Mera Goa Power is one of the cheapest micro-grid providers.
Off Grid Electric is another solar energy start-up with a similar business model. Operating in Tanzania, Off Grid Electric also provides two bright lights and mobile phone charging. The difference is in the flexibility. Off Grid sets up micro-grids for individual homes, and customers may pay daily, weekly or monthly, depending on their income at the time. They may also pay more for a quality upgrade.
Xavier Helgesen, founder and CEO of Off Grid Electric, started his company with the goal to “light the off-grid world in a decade.” Currently, his company serves more than 15,000 families. Helgesen is on a mission to show the world that investing in solar energy is the smart choice.
“Solar must deliver a better service for a cheaper price if it wishes to displace the burning of oil for light,” he writes in a Forbes article. In the past, problems facing solar energy companies have been the weakness of light provided or the high costs. Off Grid Electric faces neither of these problems with their innovative use of lithium batteries, appliances and electronics.
Mera Gao Power and Off Grid Electric represent just two of the many different for-profit solar energy start-up companies that aim to provide energy to the world’s poor rural population. With 1.3 billion people currently living without electricity, the market potential is great. Solar energy is a safe, efficient and environmentally-friendly way of bringing light to this 18 percent of the world’s population.