Black-out: SocEnt-in, Please!

August 2, 2012

India’s massive power outage this week underscores the need for social enterprises in the energy sector.

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Like most developing countries, India is well accustomed to rolling power outages and brown-outs, but even this week’s power crash was a shock to the system.

While the power outage technically affected most of the country, the primary victims were those in poorer areas and rural villages.  However, as I said, the victims were no stranger to power outages.  Many solutions to this issue have been devised.

The most effective solution is to run a diesel fuel generator in order to power your home or business.  With fuel prices as high as they are, this is an expensive (and environmentally damaging) proposition only available to the wealthiest.

Those without fuel for generators must turn to alternate solutions or do without.  For shop-owners, doing without electricity is often not just a mere inconvenience—it means days of no income.  When you are living hand-to-mouth anyways, a few days income lost can be devastating.

Social entrepreneurs have been working on solutions to the developing world energy crisis for years but more effort is clearly needed.  The problem is so massive that no one organization or person on the ground right now can successfully tackle the entire ordeal.

The Government Won’t Do Anything (soon)
Alternate energy solutions in India are not just temporary band-aid fixes until the national power grid gets its act together.  The fact of the matter is that, in developing countries, the wealthy call the shots and it is the wealthy who are least affected by rolling power outages.

For the wealthy, a power outage means that the lights dim or the fan slows for a minute while a servant runs out back to turn the generator on.

Thus, power will be supplied to the extent that it prevents people from rising up in coalition, but anything more than that is unlikely to be a national priority for years to come.

In particular, areas like Bihar, India’s poorest state, are less likely to ever receive national power assistance.  Yet, despite the darkness that rippled across India this week, some lights managed to stay on in Bihar through the help of Husk Power Systems (HPS): a community-based rural electrication grid that generates electricity through combustion of locally-sourced rice husks.

No Such Thing As a Cure-All
Given that the majority of Indians live in villages, rural electrification is a high priority for them.  Unfortunately, electricity doesn’t travel well at all. If wires were water pipes, they would be leaking all over the place.  There are ways to transmit electricity across large distances they require extremely expensive infrastructure to be in place.  The tax revenue from small villages would never cover the cost of building the transmission lines so rural electricity depends on local solutions.

Just as the problem is distributed, so must be the solution.  There are many ways to electrify rural areas (several discussed here) from hydro electricity to bio mass/bio gas, to solar.

Each solution must be custom tailored for the local community, based on available resources:  In the slums of Nairobi, Sanergy is working on turning human waste in to energy—there are a lot of people there, so that makes sense.  In the mountains of northern Pakistan, AKRSP is building hydro-electric mini power plants to take advantage of an abundance of natural water streams.   And, of course, in Bihar, where rice is plentiful, rice husks can be used to create light.

India’s energy crisis isn’t something that can be fixed with just more investment from the government; problem solvers must be on the ground working out ways to bring electricity to the people…village by village.

-          Bryan

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