600 Million Points of Light—Thinking Outside the Grid

I just returned from two weeks in India, one week with a start-up company providing a low-cost lighting solution for the 600 million individuals with homes and shops that are off-grid. The other week involved a variety of meetings, mostly concerning NGOs in India, a visit to the Salt Pans in Gujarat and three interesting days in the Bandhavgarh National Park looking for tigers and learning more about the role the Parks play in India’s future. While we were in India, the last votes were being cast for members of Parliament, which in turn would determine the nature of leadership in a very critical period for India and the world.  For the first time in many years the voters, 400 million of them, kept the incumbent party, the Congress party, in power with a larger mandate than it had before. The Indian stock market had the biggest percentage gain, ever, of any major stock market in the world the first day of trading after the results were announced.

Many observations came out of this trip, some of which relate directly to the supposed focus of this blog and others less so.

Let’s start with one that does relate, Distributed World Power (DWP), the start-up company. Full disclosure: I am on the board of DWP, which is a portfolio company of Idealab. We recently relocated the headquarters from Pasadena to Ahmedabad where the first product is being manufactured.  It is a solar-charged power pack, with three LED lights and a cell phone charger. It sells for around $100 (~5000 Rupees).  It is currently being sold through a variety of distribution systems and financing schemes to a mixture of demographics in various parts of rural India. In India, the immaturity of distribution, financing and marketing to low-income rural customers presents a problem and an opportunity.  The problem is there is no standard model in which to slot a product.  The opportunity is if one can figure out the right model(s) for the right demographics—whatever they may be—the market is huge. The need is certainly huge: 600 million off-grid with the rest on unreliable grid. This was brought home traveling through different villages, on-grid and off, in Uttar Pradesh, one of the most densely populated and least developed states of India.

At night, in an off-grid neighborhood of 70 homes, it is dark, with 4 points of light visible as one looks over the setting. Three are compact fluorescents  (cfl) hooked to small automobile batteries.  At each cfl house the light is hanging in a sheltered dirt floor area, outside the home, which one could call a “patio.” There are 9 to 11 women seated around a table doing embroidery to be sold in the local markets. The houses themselves are dark. An occasional kerosene lamp provides a small glow in an alcove inside a home. Every two days someone must carry each of these batteries 4 kilometers to be charged by a diesel generator at a cost of 11 or 12 rupees. In some villages the walk is to a point connected to the grid for recharging, although there is no guarantee that the grid will be carrying electricity at the time one arrives. In either case there is the walk to, the wait while charging and the walk back with the battery.  The fourth point of light in this village is a  “Duron,” the brand name of the DWP system.  A LED light is mounted at the entrance, lighting up the patio. Another is mounted in the main room, and a third in a bedroom or, more accurately, a dormitory.  A six to eight hour solar charge provides 4 hours of bright illumination from the three lights or 8 hours of partial illumination, or some combination thereof. Bright illumination from these three LED lights is about 570 lumens, equivalent to a 50 watt bulb, but with greater lux or intensity.

As we traipsed around the village, asking questions of the various light owners, a crowd gathered, followed us and carried on a community discussion including questions to our distributor in that area. He closed another sale that night. The system was delivered and installed the next day. I suspect there will be other sales there until about 20% of the neighborhood has lights. If the right financing scheme can be found, maybe all the homes will have light. And then, maybe all the 30 neighborhoods in the village. And then, maybe all the 70,000 villages in Uttar Pradesh.

There are calculations that justify purchases, but little value is put on time, labor or periodic outlays. The shopkeepers can make an easy calculation: more light, more people, more hours open, more sales. For a homeowner, it is not yet easy. There is a value put on education. In another village we talked with the younger brother of the owner of a Duron about how his life had changed since the purchase. He said he now studied two to three times as long as before, three hours in the pre-dawn morning and three in the late evening under one of the LEDs. Previously, he had studied under a kerosene lamp until the wind blew it out or his eyes were burning—usually about two hours.  We know there was some truth to what he told us as he had called the distributor the morning before at 6 am saying he was having trouble charging his cell phone, something he did every few days while studying. It turns out he simply hadn’t pushed the plug in far enough this time. He said he was doing better in school and now liked school–an ambitious young man with a better chance to achieve his ambitions.

These stories and others as we traveled around were quite heartening.  The quality of life improvement, the educational element, the individual economic gains made one feel good about being in the business. Maybe, as importantly, the potential to build economic value at DWP, or other companies like it, was so apparent. Not an easy task, but very likely achievable.

There was also the reinforcement and exposition of an observation made by a young friend as we were walking around the streets of Mumbai, picking our way past torn-up pavement and demolished front yards. He said, “India must skip the classic infrastructure build expected of them. They have to find another way.  Otherwise they will never bring all the country up to developed world standards and achieve true participation in the 21st century. They did it with cellular phones. Why not with other basic systems?” At the time, I felt it was a nice thought but one without an implementable set of solutions. In retrospect, having spent time in various parts of the country, I thought maybe it could be done—at least in power.  The capital and operating expenses of most alternative energy systems, ex nuclear, are approaching the point where scale is less necessary to achieve cost-of-power parity with fossil fuels. Why not skip the build-out of the grid and the behemoth power plants and install specific-point power facilities.  This can range from a Duron to a solar, wind or hydro facility, or some combination thereof, for a single home, a plant, a village or a town. Power storage is still an issue, but being solved.  Think about the emissions improvement from such an approach. Think about the shortened time frames if private enterprise provides the solutions into a local bureaucracy as opposed to a state or national one.

I haven’t spelled out a complete answer here.  That may best be left to the entrepreneurs.

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About Jack Rivkin

Jack Rivkin retired in 2008 as EVP, CIO, Head of Private Asset Management of Neuberger Berman(NB) and from NB's Executive Management Committee. He was also on the Lehman(LB) Council on Climate Change(CC) and the NB CC Fund Advisory Board. He has been engaged with the United Nations and other entities on policy issues related to Private Capital and CC. He is an Associate Fellow of the Asia Society. He has continued on the NB Mutual Fund Board and with his CC responsibilities. He began his investment career in 68 as an analyst at Mitchell Hutchins(MH), and became Director of Research(DOR) there. After Paine Webber(PW) acquired MH, he served as DOR; CFO of PW; CEO of PWMH-the equity trading and investment arm of PW; Chmn of MH Asset Management and President of PW Capital. 87-92 he was DOR and, subsequently, Head of the Worldwide Equities Division of LB. 93-95, he served as a Vice Chairman and DOR at Smith Barney (now Citigroup). He was an EVP with Citigroup Investments 94-01, responsible for private equity investments. He was also an adjunct professor at Columbia University teaching a course in Security Analysis. He joined NB in 2002. He is the co-author of “Risk & Reward—Venture Capital and the Making of America’s Great Industries,” Random House, 1987. He is a regular guest on various media. He is the principal subject in a series of Harvard Business School cases describing his experience as DOR and Equity Head at LB. He has served as a director of a number of private companies and the NYSSA. He is currently a director of Idealab, Dale Carnegie, Operative, World Policy Institute and other private companies. He is a member of the Economic Club of NY, the Anglers Club, Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers, and a lifetime member of Trout Unlimited. He continues to be an active private equity investor when he isn’t fly fishing. Mr. Rivkin earned his Professional Engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines and his MBA from the Harvard Business School

6 thoughts on “600 Million Points of Light—Thinking Outside the Grid

  1. I was extremely interested in the comment you discuss at the end – skipping the traditional infrastructure build by utilizing technology to bring the same functionality to the developing world, aka the cell phone. This is something I have heard before, but only in the context of cell phones and fixed line communication systems. How amazing that this may also be a model for how developing economies approach basic services such as power, water, sewage, or transportation.

    Further, it seems to me, the potential upside is not just the 400 million customers in India, but also the 200 million customers in the United States – and, presumably, at very different margins. There has been a lot of discussion about the localization of commodities, specifically food, and how that has major impacts on environmental burdens and carbon costs – if you grow your tomatoes in your back yard instead of getting them from Israel, you massively change the equations of how to feed large populations and what those costs are, especially in terms of carbon. Likewise, with energy, there are enormous savings associated with using locally (wind, solar, water, biomass) generated power – there is no loss in transmission, there is less surplus capacity, and it helps people monitor their usage.

    It may very well be the case that the United States, in its efforts to better manage the environmental burden of its own infrastructure, will wind up looking to successful technologies/companies/business models in the developing world for inspiration on how to reimagine the delivery of utilities and various other elements of its economy. This potentially makes DWP not just a compelling project for the businesses and young scholars in Uttar Pradesh, but also for everyone else.

  2. Pingback: Why Power Generation Will Mirror Cell Phones in Developing Nations

  3. I heard you on Bloomberg news and read your blog 600 Million Points of light, that was fantastic. I would like to be a solar distributor of your Duron product in Afica based in Nigeria.

    Tony.

  4. I managed to stumble upon your blog while exploring alternate energy solutions. I come from Uttar Pradesh and am a chemical engineer by profession. I have some prior experience of working on solar PV as well as solar thermal technologies. Your idea no doubt is amazing. The product sounds quite novel. If you require any type of assistance it will be my pleasure to assist you.

    Regards

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