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Microgrids Key to Bringing a Billion Out of the Dark

Every night, more than a billion people live in the dark when the sun goes down. They experience a different world than that of people in developed countries. Their only source of light, where available, comes from kerosene – a fuel that is expensive, dirty and potentially dangerous. Consequently, their immediate environment is often filled with smoke and fire, thereby making it difficult to even see properly.

Ten years ago, alternatives to kerosene were hard to find. Today is a very different story. Technological advances have greatly reduced the price of LED lights and solar, not to mention precipitating global mobile coverage. Jake Kendall and Rodger Voorhies cite in a Foreign Affairs article, “according to the World Bank, mobile signals now cover some 90 percent of the world’s poor.” These changes have fed a mini-revolution where it is now possible to bring a billion people out of the dark.

Low-cost micro grid pioneer, Mera Gao Power (MGP), which provides lighting and cell phone charging services, recently closed a U.S. $500,000 debt investment deal with the Dutch-based ICCO investment fund. This is a welcome development for energy access companies, which desperately need funding to meet the increasing demand for lighting, cell phone charging and other energy services. Although encouraging, many more investments are needed.

 

A Mera Gao Power technician connects the wiring to charge a cell phone. Photo by Anastasia Cronin
A Mera Gao Power technician connects the wiring to charge a cell phone.
Photo by Anastasia Cronin

As it turned out, 2014 was a very successful year, when energy access companies secured at least $64 million in investments, mostly equity, according to Greentech Media. This may have outpaced energy access investments in all previous years combined. MGP’s investment is particularly relevant because debt financing signals achievement of past success, as opposed to equity, which is riskier. More difficult to obtain, debt investment is essential to attracting commercial banks, which are vital to truly scale the energy access sector.

MGP’s success comes on the heels of its accomplishment last year, as a winner of National Geographic’s Terra Watt Prize, a competition challenging energy access companies to provide basic electricity to communities living off the grid. To date, the $125,000 earned from the Terra Watt Prize has enabled MGP to build micro-grids in 70 hamlets in Uttar Pradesh, India, a number that is expected to double in the coming months.

MGP’s operation oversees the completion of one micro-grid facility per day, which serves approximately 25 households each with enough electricity to power two lights and charge a cell phone. This is cheaper, safer and a higher quality alternative to kerosene, which costs families 35 rupees ($0.55) per week and sometimes much more — and this does not include phone charging. As an alternative, MGP customers pay 30 rupees ($0.47) per week for lighting and phone charging services.

 

Each household connected to the micro-grid receives enough electricity to power a couple of one-watt LED light bulbs. Photo by Anastasia Cronin
Each household connected to the micro-grid receives enough electricity to power a couple of one-watt LED light bulbs.
Photo by Anastasia Cronin

With such advancements, it is no wonder MGP is generating interest. Not only among banks and off-grid communities, MGP has also attracted attention among communities with grid-access. Even though these communities are grid-connected, electricity can be low voltage and therefore less reliable. “They can’t even charge cell phones,” explains MGP co-founder, Sandeep Pandey. However “with a partially connected grid, these households are particularly enthusiastic because they experience what it’s like to get access to electricity.” The demand for MGP services continues to grow.

“Families are simply happy to see the food that they eat after sun down, safely avoid snakes entering their homes, and no longer be exposed to the fire hazards of kerosene lamps. The economic case is not a hard sell, hence MGP customers are eager to obtain reliable electricity for 30 rupees a week.”

 

After winning the Terra Watt Prize, Mera Gao Power expanded their business to Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, India Photo by Anastasia Cronin
After winning the Terra Watt Prize, Mera Gao Power expanded their business to Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, India
Photo by Anastasia Cronin

Comments

  1. Sandeep Giri
    Kathmandu, Nepal
    July 29, 2015, 5:02 pm

    Congratulations to Nikhil and Brian and the entire team at Mera Gao Power — they definitely set a great example in the microgrids (might I say Picogrids and Nanogrids) space — great job, guys!

  2. Gilbert
    St. Lucia
    July 27, 2015, 6:43 pm

    I am always pleased when I hear the different ways and means this clean form of energy, Solar Energy, give people where ever they maybe across the globe, clean sustainable energy in and for their everyday living. PAYG intertwine with Micro Grid is maybe one of the more affordable ways to grow solar power to the low and middle class families and in time, the higher class families will catch-up when they witness the economical benefits.
    But PAYG and micro grid approach will not work as it should unless the banks, financial institutions lending facilities are first educated and then partner to give long term low interest financial assistance to companies, businesses, the providers and to families and micro businesses, the consumers. This also applies to the Caribbean region especially the small Island states.

  3. Nikhil Jaisinghani
    India
    June 17, 2015, 10:18 am

    Russell, thank you for your comments on our work. We appreciate the critical lens through which you have evaluated what we do. We are also thankful that we have the opportunity to correct a few misconceptions others may have as well.

    When we talk about grid electricity, typically we speak of 220V AC power. Indeed, this is dangerous, and yet we have seen people in urban India dangerously connecting their homes through make shift connections with dangerous exposed wires. One of our key objectives was to ensure our systems are much safer than grid power. As a result, we distribute power through very low voltage DC. Though this means larger voltage drops, it also means safer service to customers. The voltage along our grids is equivalent to that from a standard bus battery. If you are playing around where you arent supposed to, you may feel a pinch, but nothing more (I speak from experience!). As you noted, our electricians work on the system during the day when the system is off.

    You commented about the LED lights hanging instead of being fixed. When we started, it was our policy that lights be fixed on ceilings to provide better lighting within a room. However, we soon realized it was not our place to dictate how customers use the lights. In fact, while you and I may feel we are getting better use of the lights fixed in a different way, our customers would not agree; they prefer lights hanging and shining horizontal. Our purpose is to serve our customers and this is their preference.

    There are a large number of LED lighting manufacturers and some do not provide high quality products. We spent our first years replacing suppliers of all of our components until we found ones we were happy with. We had the LED lights from our current supplier tested; these tests confirmed high per watt luminosity and 0 degradation over a 1,000 hour test; the testing agency themselves took an extra moment to comment on the high quality of the light. Our manufacturer also custom manufactures these lights to work on our micro grid. At the same time, we continue to evolve as a company and recently tested a new supplier in India that could provide us with a light customers may like even more. Those lights are undergoing the same rigorous tests are current light underwent.

    Rest assured, we do use deep cycle batteries and charge controllers. In fact while much of the Indian solar community believed PWM charge controllers to be adequate, we have used the more expensive MPPT charge controllers since the very beginning. As with other components, we worked through a few different suppliers and models before settling on our current charge controller. Though expensive, this charge controller serves our purpose well; slowly the Indian solar community has also begun migrating to MPPT charge controllers and there are even some MPPT charge controller manufacturers in India now.

    Finally, your point on wiring is on point. Though some of the taping you saw was electrical taping around crimped connections (the tape is more of a way for us to identify customer attempts at tampering), quality control has been a focal point for us as a company over the past year. At one point, we were building over 100 micro grids a month and attention to detail was slipping. We have new processes, post construction inspections, a standard 25 point checklist, and even a new quality control app that have been introduced to improve cleanliness and quality of construction. Though there is work to be done, we are incredibly proud of our construction teams. We hire from within the very villages we serve, and these untrained and inexperienced workers quickly learn how to build micro grids. They focus on their techniques, are constantly learning, and take follow-up training very seriously. Their ability to transition from unskilled laborers to skilled micro grid electricians has been remarkable and we want to highlight the strides and professional attitude they have taken.

    Please feel free to write me at njaisinghani@meragaopower.com if you would like to follow up on any of these points or make specific recommendations. We are always happy to consider new ways of providing better service to our customers.

  4. Nikhil Jaisinghani
    India
    June 15, 2015, 6:44 am

    Russell, thank you for your comments on our work. We appreciate the critical lens through which you have evaluated what we do. We are also thankful that we have the opportunity to correct a few misconceptions others may have as well.

    When we talk about grid electricity, typically we speak of 220V AC power. Indeed, this is dangerous, and yet we have seen people in urban India dangerously connecting their homes through make shift connections with dangerous exposed wires. One of our key objectives was to ensure our systems are much safer than grid power. As a result, we distribute power through very low voltage DC. Though this means larger voltage drops, it also means safer service to customers. The voltage along our grids is equivalent to that from a standard bus battery. If you are playing around where you arent supposed to, you may feel a pinch, but nothing more (I speak from experience!). As you noted, our electricians work on the system during the day when the system is off.

    You commented about the LED lights hanging instead of being fixed. When we started, it was our policy that lights be fixed on ceilings to provide better lighting within a room. However, we soon realized it was not our place to dictate how customers use the lights. In fact, while you and I may feel we are getting better use of the lights fixed in a different way, our customers would not agree; they prefer lights hanging and shining horizontal. Our purpose is to serve our customers and this is their preference.

    There are a large number of LED lighting manufacturers and some do not provide high quality products. We spent our first years replacing suppliers of all of our components until we found ones we were happy with. We had the LED lights from our current supplier tested; these tests confirmed high per watt luminosity and 0 degradation over a 1,000 hour test; the testing agency themselves took an extra moment to comment on the high quality of the light. Our manufacturer also custom manufactures these lights to work on our micro grid. At the same time, we continue to evolve as a company and recently tested a new supplier in India that could provide us with a light customers may like even more. Those lights are undergoing the same rigorous tests are current light underwent.

    Since inception, we have used MPPT charge controllers though common practice in India’s off-grid sector has been to use PWM. This is slowly changing and we are ahead of the curve here, having invested in better technology since the very beginning. Our batteries are deep cycle gel tubular batteries – again, we went through a few suppliers before settling on these. We pay a premium for every component we use to ensure quality service to our customers.

    Finally, your comment on wiring is on point. Though some of the taping you saw was electrical taping around crimped connections (the tape is more of a way for us to identify customer attempts at tampering), quality control has been a focal point for us as a company over the past year. At one point, we were building over 100 micro grids a month and attention to detail was slipping. We have new processes, post construction inspections, a standard 25 point quality control checklist, and even a new quality control app that have been introduced to improve cleanliness and quality of construction. Though there is work to be done, we are incredibly proud of our construction teams. We hire from within the very villages we serve, and these untrained and inexperienced workers quickly learn how to build micro grids. They focus on their techniques, are constantly learning, and take follow-up training very seriously. Their ability to transition from unskilled laborers to skilled micro grid electricians has been remarkable and we want to highlight the strides and professional attitude they have taken.

    Please feel free to write me at njaisinghani@meragaopower.com if you would like to follow up on any of these points or make specific recommendations. We are always happy to consider new ways of providing better service to our customers.

  5. Russell McMahon
    Auckland, New Zealand (and around the world :-) )
    June 4, 2015, 5:19 am

    The following is NOT meant to “knock” this incentive. The aim is to point out manifest shortcomings which will reduce the long term cost effectiveness if not addressed.

    The overall concept is excellent. I applaud and support what is being done – but as a professional electrical engineer feel obliged to comment on obvious shortcomings which are going to the cost effectiveness of the project and which may cost lives.
    The implementation is clearly substandard and is going to waste money and resources and it endangers lives. The 3 photos seem unlikely to be posed (or at best only partly so) and each reflects appalling and/or dangerous standards of implementation. I am well enough aware of the practicalities of the typical Indian environment (I have spent a relatively short time in India, but went out of my way to try to get a feel for the realities rather than just the “tourist image) , but failure to ‘finish the job’ to a quality level which is sensible and achievable in the context is poor economics.
    BRIEFLY:
    – The hanging LED lighting is making very poor use of the electrical energy per available light. More houses or more effective light could be provided. Wastage estimate – factor of 2 – maybe more.
    It is not certain from the picture but it appears that mains voltage is present at the LED fitting and that connections are tape covered (and perhaps twisted terminations). If so, a potential death-trap is being created at each LED bulb,
    – The rooftop panel wiring is poorly done and while it cannot be seen it suggests a too casual approach to installation that SHOULD last 20+ years if properly done. The UV degradation of wire exposed as it is is liable to ensure well under 20 year lifetime and lack of clipping or otherwise routed wiring is unwise and not up to any formal “standard”.
    (Panel mounting looks acceptable and orientation suggests understanding of the alignment requirements.
    – Technician wiring practices appear excessively casual (circuit MAY not be live)(and he is probably highly competent) but (based on text and photo) it appears he is “hard wiring” a phone charger without plug and socket and that what may be a switch and (perhaps ) a fuse is dangling in mid air. Such practices are common enough in low technology low income environments but despite the low cost are NOT cost effective over the installation lifetime and lead to potential (and real) faults, fires and fatalities.

    Money “saved” by substandard wiring of panels, lack of ‘proper’ LED luminaires (which can be very low cost), properly terminated wiring runs with sockets and perhaps switches is more than lost by the consequences of such slip-shod arrangements. The extra cost of ‘doing it well enough’ (doesn’t have to be up to “Western standards” ) would be more than saved in longer to much longer equipment lifetimes, much better use of energy (more light or more homes) much better reliability – and probably also in lives lost.
    The batteries, controllers, inverters etc are not shown. Hopefully the implementation and the design is to a better standard than what is seen here – but, (sadly), why should this be the case? Are the batteries ‘deep cycle’ designs (assuming they are lead acid)? Are they discharged only to a fraction of their full capacity to ensure long cycle lifetimes? Are they provided with correct boost then float charging cycles ? Hopefully controllers are used and not just panel to battery isolators (“Money saving” but battery killing. )

    More could be asked but that covers enough.

    Russell McMahon
    apptechnz@gmail.com

  6. Pinky
    India
    May 20, 2015, 5:46 am

    Very well written. Such initiatives need to be regularly featured.

  7. KAILASH HARIHARAN IYER
    India
    May 18, 2015, 11:38 am

    Good blog. Well written, and touches upon a very important issue. We need to have more such topics in National Geographic.