Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Light in India

January 10, 2011, 7:25 pm A Light in India

Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.

electricity, India, innovation, Poverty, power


© Harikrishna Katragadda/Greenpeace
Students in the village of Tahipur in Bihar used kerosene lanterns for studying.When we hear the word innovation, we often think of new technologies or silver bullet solutions — like hydrogen fuel cells or a cure for cancer. To be sure, breakthroughs are vital: antibiotics and vaccines, for example, transformed global health. But as we’ve argued in Fixes, some of the greatest advances come from taking old ideas or technologies and making them accessible to millions of people who are underserved.

One area where this is desperately needed is access to electricity. In the age of the iPad, it’s easy to forget that roughly a quarter of the world’s population — about a billion and a half people (pdf) — still lack electricity. This isn’t just an inconvenience; it takes a severe toll on economic life, education and health. It’s estimated that two million people die prematurely each year as a result of pulmonary diseases caused by the indoor burning of fuels for cooking and light. Close to half are children who die of pneumonia.

In vast stretches of the developing world, after the sun sets, everything goes dark. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 70 percent of the population lack electricity. However, no country has more citizens living without power than India, where more than 400 million people, the vast majority of them villagers, have no electricity. The place that remains most in darkness is Bihar, India’s poorest state, which has more than 80 million people, 85 percent of whom live in households with no grid connection. Because Bihar has nowhere near the capacity to meet its current power demands, even those few with connections receive electricity sporadically and often at odd hours, like between 3:00 a.m and 6:00 a.m., when it is of little use.

This is why I’m writing today about a small but fast-growing off-grid electricity company based in Bihar called Husk Power Systems. It has created a system to turn rice husks into electricity that is reliable, eco-friendly and affordable for families that can spend only $2 a month for power. The company has 65 power units that serve a total of 30,000 households and is currently installing new systems at the rate of two to three per week.

What’s most interesting about Husk Power is how it has combined many incremental improvements that add up to something qualitatively new — with the potential for dramatic scale. The company expects to have 200 systems by the end of 2011, each serving a village or a small village cluster. Its plan is to ramp that up significantly, with the goal of having 2,014 units serving millions of clients by the end of 2014.

© Harikrishna Katragadda/Greenpeace

A biomass gasifier owned and operated by Husk Power Systems.Husk Power was founded by four friends: Gyanesh Pandey, Manoj Sinha, Ratnesh Yadav and Charles W. Ransler, who met attending different schools in India and the United States. Pandey, the company’s chief executive, grew up in a village in Bihar without electricity. “I felt low because of that,” he told me when we met recently in New Delhi. He decided to study electrical engineering. At college in India, he experienced the Indian prejudice against Biharis — some students refused to sit at the same table with him — which contributed to his desire to emigrate to the U.S.. He found his way to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., where he completed a master’s degree before landing a position with the semiconductor manufacturer International Rectifier in Los Angeles. His job was to figure out how to get the best performance from integrated circuits at the lowest possible cost. This helped him develop a problem-solving aptitude that would prove useful for Husk Power.

He was soon earning a six-figure income. He bought his family a diesel-powered electric generator. As a single man living in Los Angeles, he enjoyed traveling, dining out and going to clubs. “I was basically cruising through life,” he recalled. “But along with that pleasure and smoothness was a dark zone in my head.” He began meditating — and he realized that he felt compelled to return home and use his knowledge to bring light to Bihar.

Back in India, he and his friend Yadav, an entrepreneur, spent the next few years experimenting. They explored the possibility of producing organic solar cells. They tried growing a plant called jatropha, whose seeds can be used for biodiesel. Both proved impractical as businesses. They tested out solar lamps, but found their application limited. “In the back of my mind, I always thought there would be some high tech solution that would solve the problem,” said Pandey.

One day he ran into a salesman who sold gasifiers — machines that burn organic materials in an oxygen restricted environment to produce biogas which can be used to power an engine. There was nothing new about gasifiers; they had been around for decades. People sometimes burned rice husks in them to supplement diesel fuel, which was expensive. “But nobody had thought to use rice husks to run a whole power system,” explained Pandey.

In Bihar, poverty is extreme. Pretty much everything that can be used will be used — recycled or burned or fed to animals. Rice husks are the big exception. When rice is milled, the outside kernel, or husk, is discarded. Because the husk contains a lot of silica, it doesn’t burn well for cooking. A recent Greenpeace study (pdf) reports that Bihar alone produces 1.8 billion kilograms of rice husk per year. Most of it ends up rotting in landfills and emitting methane, a greenhouse gas.

Courtesy of Husk Power Systems
The mini-power plant during the day.Pandey and Yadav began bringing pieces together for an electric distribution system powered by the husks. They got a gasifier, a generator set, filtering, cleaning and cooling systems, piping and insulated wiring. They went through countless iterations to get the system working: adjusting valves and pressures, the gas-to-air ratios, the combustion temperature, the starting mechanism. In they end, they came up with a system that could burn 50 kilograms of rice husk per hour and produce 32 kilowatts of power, sufficient for about 500 village households.

They reached out to people in a village called Tamkuha, in Bihar, offering them a deal: for 80 rupees a month — roughly $1.75 — a household could get daily power for one 30-watt or two 15-watt compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs and unlimited cell phone charging between 5:00 p.m and 11:00 p.m. For many families, the price was less than half their monthly kerosene costs, and the light would be much brighter. It would also be less smoky, less of a fire hazard, and better for the environment. Customers could pay for more power if they needed it — for radios, TVs, ceiling fans or water pumps. But many had no appliances and lived in huts so small, one bulb was enough. The system went live on August 15, 2007, the anniversary of India’s independence.

It worked. Back in the United States, their colleagues Sinha and Ransler, who were pursuing M.B.A.s at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, put together a business plan and set out to raise money. They came first in two student competitions, garnering prizes of $10,000 and $50,000. The company received a grant from the Shell Foundation and set up three more systems in 2008. It has since raised $1.75 million in investment financing. In 2009, they had 19 systems in operation; in 2010, they more than tripled that number.

Technically, most of the problems were solved by 2008. But to make the business viable has required an ongoing process of what has been called “frugal innovation” — radically simplifying things to serve the needs of poor customers who would otherwise be excluded from basic market services due to their limited ability to pay.

© Harikrishna Katragadda/Greenpeace
Shops in the Sariswa Village market use power generated by Husk Power Systems.In order to bring down costs, for example, the company stripped down the gasifiers and engines, removing everything non-essential that added to manufacturing or maintenance expenses, like turbocharging. They replaced an automated water-aided process for the removal of rice husk char (burned husks) from gasifiers with one that uses 80 percent less water and can be operated with a hand crank. They kept labor costs down by recruiting locals, often from very poor families with modest education levels (who would be considered unemployable by many companies) and training them to operate and load machines, and work as fee collectors and auditors, going door-to-door ensuring that villagers aren’t using more electricity than they pay for. (Electricity theft is a national problem in India, resulting in losses to power companies estimated at 30 percent. Husk Power says it has managed to keep such losses down to five percent.)

When the company noticed that customers were purchasing poor-quality CFL bulbs, which waste energy, they partnered with Havells India, a large manufacturer, to purchase thousands of high quality bulbs at discount rates, which their collectors now sell to clients. They also saw that collectors could become discount suppliers of other products — like soap, biscuits and oil — so they added a product fulfillment business into the mix.

And they found ways to extract value from the rice husk char — the waste product of a waste product — by setting up another side business turning the char into incense sticks. This business now operates in five locations and provides supplemental income to 500 women. The company also receives government subsidies for renewable energy and is seeking Clean Development Mechanism benefits.

With growth, human audits have proven inadequate to control electricity theft or inadvertent overuse. So the company developed a stripped-down pre-payment smart-card reader for home installation. The going rate for smart-card readers is between $50 and $90. Husk Power is near completion of one that Pandey says will cost under $7.

Alone, none of these steps would have been significant. Taken together, however, they make it possible for power units to deliver tiny volumes of electricity while enjoying a 30 percent profit margin. The side businesses add another 20 percent to the bottom line. Pandey says new power units become profitable within 2 to 3 months of installation. He expects the company to be financially self-sustaining by June 2011.

From a social standpoint, there are many benefits to this business model. In addition to the fact that electricity allows shop keepers to stay open later and farmers to irrigate more land, and lighting increases children’s studying time and reduces burglaries and snakebites, the company also channels most of its wages and payments for services directly back into the villages it serves.

For decades, countries have operated on the assumption that power from large electricity plants will eventually trickle down to villagers. In many parts of the world, this has proven to be elusive. Husk Power has identified at least 25,000 villages across Bihar and neighboring states in India’s rice belt as appropriate for its model. Ramapati Kumar, an advisor on Climate and Energy for Greenpeace India, who has studied Husk Power, explained that the company’s model could “go a long way in bringing light to 125,000 unelectrified villages in India,” while reducing “the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.”

It’s too soon to say whether Husk Power will prove to be successful in the long run. As with any young company, there are many unknowns. To achieve its goals, it will need to recruit and train thousands of employees over the next four years, raise additional financing, and institute sound management practices. Many companies destroy themselves in the process of trying to expand aggressively.

But the lessons here go beyond the fortunes of Husk Power. What the company illustrates is a different way to think about innovation — one that is suitable for global problems that stem from poor people’s lack of access to energy, water, housing and education. In many cases, success in these challenges hinges less on big new ideas than on collections of small old ideas well integrated and executed. “What’s replicable isn’t the distribution of electricity,” says Pandey. “It’s the whole process of how to take an old technology and apply it to local constraints. How to create a system out of the materials and labor that are readily available.”

Let me know if you’ve come across other examples of innovations that follow this pattern.

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David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is the founder of, a media site that reports on social innovation.

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By TOM CHAFFIN.93 Readers' CommentsPost a Comment ».All CommentsHighlightsReaders' RecommendationsReplies..OldestNewest of 4Next ..1.odej
New York
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmI think its wonderful. Having been in India among the untouchables, their quality of life has a long way to go. From the article its clear that this is inspired from the ground up. That these people still live as they did forty years ago is for reasons that are top down. That is deferent problem, but for now, it's good to see such energy and care being showered on people that have so little.
Recommend Recommended by 17 Readers .2.Sid M
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmWell written article. It makes me wonder if there are enough rice husks to power the 125,000 villages as mentioned in your conclusion, though.
Recommend Recommended by 25 Readers .3.write thesis
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmi hope the innovation that the people made can be shared unto this places who needs them direly, that is why we those technology in order for use to be efficient.

Recommend Recommended by 2 Readers .4.Rajendra Vottery
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmThis is journalism at its best - stories such as this inspire people to build their nation, nay the world, that they believe they deserve. Thank you, Mr Bornstein, for bringing this story to us.
Recommend Recommended by 70 Readers .5.Makarand
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmOne word - Amazing ! Both the entrepreneur as well as the journalism highlighting it.
Recommend Recommended by 32 Readers .6.Nimesh M.
Fremont, California.
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmKudos to the Husk Power team for enabling villages in Bihar with a sustainable renewable source of energy. As a Non resident Indian, I find this article very inspiring and hope your idea lights a millions of progressive lives.
Recommend Recommended by 32 Readers .7.Manish
New Delhi
January 11th, 2011
5:48 pmVery nice article..being belong from one of the state in India it is highly motivational.
Recommend Recommended by 12 Readers .8.sathiyavelan
Cuddalore, TN, India
January 11th, 2011
5:49 pmThis is ingenious. I hope Bihar and other poorer states in India gets better. Frugal innovation and other technological innovations should also improve the social system in poorest places of India. Mainly they are poor because of their social system.
Recommend Recommended by 10 Readers .9.Sol Biderman
January 11th, 2011
5:49 pmThe use of bioenergy in Brazil is supported by government entities and private enterprise on an enormous scale.. Large national companies, some with international investors, are using sugarcane bagasse to electrify an increasingly large percentage of the national grid.. Former President Lula helped organize cooperatives to produce jatropha, palm oil, castor oil but were less successful than the giant agribusiness enterprises that produce energy from sugarcane bagasse and soybeans (used currently as a 5% mix for diesel oil, fuel for trucks and some power plants.
About 8 years ago Nasa reported that Brazil had the second largest street lighting system in the world (as viewed from satellites) after the U.S,.The Brazilian government for decades has been directly involved in electricity generation, and only in the past 15 years has it privatized a large part of the distribution system. -Mr. Sol Biderman
Recommend Recommended by 7 Readers .10.jim mason
berkeley, ca
January 11th, 2011
5:49 pmthis is a wonderful endeavor, and one which severals orgs are currently working on around the world. i work on one of the others-- one which is leveraging diy hacking, open source plans, and desktop manufacturing tools to minimize start up friction, and maximize viral spread. it is a related take on "frugal innovation", but one experimenting with how we far we can use the web to do most of the work.

does the magic dust of open source work for industrial hardware too? or is the cost/difficulty of replicating "atoms" prevent the juice that makes it work in digital realms? we're exploring a test case in the realm of personal scale energy products.

the project is called the Gasifier Experimenter's Kit from ALL Power Labs. all information as well as the collaborative workspace are found at there is everything from free plans and you weld together sheet metal kits, to full turnkey systems.

another central resource to learn about small scale gasification systems and their technology is the bioenergylists hosted by tom miles. this is the largest index and online discussion list relating to this tech. see here:

for those who want to build their own gasifier, an inventory of all available online plans is here:

jim mason

Recommend Recommended by 15 Readers .11.Faisal Q
Washington DC
January 11th, 2011
8:19 pmSimply wow. Innovation at its best. Its time to give back.
Recommend Recommended by 12 Readers .12.Varun C.H.
January 11th, 2011
8:19 pmI'm very much inspired by this article since it sheds light into a new definition for innovation. The creativity and hardwork of these young innovators is much appreciable and these kind of environment friendly innovations must be encouraged allover for the betterment of the underserved.
Recommend Recommended by 14 Readers .13.Sam
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmI admire the founders of Husk Power and wish them all the best. My concern is, just like micro-finance, this innovation can be a target for the dirty politicians and mafia.

Bihar and Jharkhand have the richest coal mines in India and if there is no electricity for the villages, it is because the extremely corrupt politicians in the states. They have a vested interest in keeping the people in dark. Especially in this context the good deeds of Husk Power provide a social value that can never be measured by any metrics used by elite economists.

I am surprised at the comment husk is of no use. In Andhra Pradesh, a southern state in India, the large producer of rice in the country, rice husk is traded like any other commodity. It has lots of use, they make pellets or bricks that can be burnt as regular fuel. It is used as a bedding for the chicken in the poultry industry, which is later used as organic manure.
Recommend Recommended by 37 Readers .14.john delano
hopewell junction
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmWell written and worthy of an anology to what is being done in America-at this time.
A few years ago an arab country had oil production and the methane that came out of the well with the oil was burned as a waste product.
An American Named Harold Pontez came up with the idea of building a power plant using GE 6000 generators that would be turned by a "Jet engine."
Using the waste methane Harold brought the project to completion in 6 months.
Thats my friend and I admire him.
The process of using a compact generation system at the source prevent the long pipelines that pirates blow up.
His whole process can remove the horror of strip minning in the Applachians.
His source of fuel-"coal seam methane."

For an example of an efficient method of power generation-See "Dom" NYSE -black warrior Trust" in Southern Alabama. The indian [native american] land has 532 -2,000 deep wells drilled through the small area that is their land and the public utility pipes out 30 million dollars every year as the coal gives up its methane.
My friend Harrold can lite p the entire northeast grid in time with his system utilizing his method and his system would follow the power lines, The cost of moving electricity to the grid is expensive. Entergy in Westchester county NY makes so much money because Con Edison has the power line outside there door.
The article inspired me to review again our coal seam gas potential on our 200,000 square miles of Applachian coal fields.
The "farce" of drilling in the Marcellus Shale must be stopped. It will have negative equity in 4 years say the accountants that work for these Marcellus Gas Companies.
They do not have a reservoir like the 250 million years of solar input into the coal of the applachians.
Recommend Recommended by 8 Readers .15.Chuck
Williamstown, NJ
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmTruly inspirational.

I hope the politicians leave these entrepreneurs alone and let the model sustain and grow by itself.

Bihar is known as a lawless state with rampant corruption. Very soon, these entrepreneurs could have the "law officials" knocking at their doors for protection money or permits or something else. Lets hope and pray that does not happen.

To answer Sid #2, yes there is more than enough husk to light up the villages.
Recommend Recommended by 23 Readers .16.M Saleem Chaudhry
karachi pakistan
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmKudos for David.B ,for highlighting an exceptionally innovative initiative of India to work out an affordable solution,for alleviating the sufferings of poor masses.This is reflective of the concern,involvement and commitment of Indian leadership for helping their teeming population.In turn this is a challenge for the leadership of Pakistani leadership, that on the other side,indulges in tomfoolery of rented second-hand power units, for the gainful satisfaction of their ulterior objectives of graft and greed and the same of their stooges and yet continue to yell for democratic services and fulfillment of articles of their faith,so -called, Islam
Recommend Recommended by 11 Readers .17.krishnan
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmthe disel prices are going to increase furthur
some body can design a compact gasifier which can be mounted at the rear end of tractor without touching implements
husk can be pelletised and converted into gas and by modifying cylinder head of the engine
it can be dual engine husk gas and diesel
may be a lilo of
Recommend Recommended by 8 Readers .18.RK
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmThere was a similar Jhansi-based initiative called Desi Power that Mark Gregory described in his feature "Can a bush solve rural energy needs?" on the BBC Web site (updated on 19 March 2006, 01:59 GMT).
Dr Arun Kumar, director of the Development Alternatives NGO, which ran the Jhansi project, had invested in a generator that produced 100 kilowatts of electricity (enough to service the modest needs of four or five typical Indian villages -- power from the generator was also used to drive industrial processes, such as paper-making) from the ipunia bush, which grows in marshy land not suitable for agriculture. The NGO established a further 18 rural biomass power projects based on the experience at Jhansi.
Other types of biomass suitable for the gasifiers included casuarina, eucalyptus, phadauk, silver oak, pine, mulberry stalk, ipomea, jungle wood, coconut shell, coconut fronds, cotton stalk, buynat, coffee husk, sawdust, groundnut husk, rice husk, etc.

Recommend Recommended by 15 Readers .19.sun
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmOnly if many of the six figure earning Indians in America had eye eastwards.
Recommend Recommended by 8 Readers .20.ashish gambhir
gurgaon, india
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmi belong to such a place in Bihar........Ara..... more than two years back i set up a stand alone solar system for my elderly parents....... since then they have thrown away their candles, kerosene lamps, torches, emergency lights...... all must haves in Bihar......

here is a youtube link to the video demonstrating the system......http:....
Recommend Recommended by 16 Readers .21.DJS
January 11th, 2011
8:20 pmGood information except for the "fashionable" opening of a typical western mindset to portray others in a negative light "Indians prejudice against Biharis".
Recommend Recommended by 10 Readers .22.ced
Ketchum, ID
January 11th, 2011
8:21 pmWhat a well crafted, intelligent, moving, and pointing-toward-the future (we all hope) piece. Thank you for writing it, and writing it so well. I am going to order your books (and Ms. Rosenberg's book) for my library. coileen
Recommend Recommended by 4 Readers .23.Mahesh B
January 11th, 2011
8:21 pmEvery problem presents an opportunity, which few recognize and pursue. Thank you for your timely and enlightening report, which will do wonders in many a classroom in the world.
Recommend Recommended by 6 Readers .24.MJones
San Francisco
January 11th, 2011
10:55 pmThis is a wonderful example of dealing with all aspects of technological change to improve the potential of large numbers of people with few resources improve their standard of living and lower the death rate of young children. In effect, providing a minimal amount of electricity improves life for the poorest people on the planet. The real measure of success in India will be whether they lower their birth rate as a result.

When it was first invaded by humans thousands of years ago, what is now India was one of the most fertile and rich environments even known on Earth, with clean water and many biological species. Today, it is an environmental disaster, with bad air, its rivers turned to sewers, and vast species kill-off.

Ultimately, Indians have to reduce their population to what their environment can support without degradation to water, air, soil, and human living conditions. Will people who have more light at night use it to improve their education as is the case for most people in Europe and America, or will they use it to have more babies? That's the bottom line.

Thus far, every improvement in health and the economy in India has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of mouths to feed and the number of humans to pollute the waterways. As in this example, western countries like America and England, educate some of its most promising students. But America's environment is also deteriorating at a rapid rate as new immigrants usually have a very high rate of reproduction. Any true measurement of success in India and America must include the long term impacts as well short term benefits as described in this article.
Recommend Recommended by 11 Readers .25.Amit
January 11th, 2011
10:55 pmVery nice article. Thank you for shining a light on the good things people are doing to help others out.
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Fixes explores solutions to major social problems. Each week, it examines creative initiatives that can tell us about the difference between success and failure. It is written by David Bornstein, author of “How to Change the World,” and founder of, and Tina Rosenberg, contributing writer for The New York Times magazine and author of the forthcoming “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.”

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