Twenty-two-year-old Yashraj Khaitan finds it difficult to explain to his parents what exactly he is doing in a remote village in Rajasthan.
One year ago, as a fresh graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, Khaitan turned down a job offer from Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of wireless network equipment, to start his own company.
Gram Power, the venture he founded along with a batchmate Jacob Dickinson, enables villagers to produce and store renewable energy. It helps them integrate and generate energy out of biomass, solar or wind on-site.
“Initially, there was uncertainty about this innovation. My parents told me to get some corporate experience first,” says Khaitan, who was motivated to work on electrification after he experienced the power of jugaad, or local innovation, in rural India.
While on a university project to identify challenges faced by rural India, Khaitan met a grassroots innovator in a remote village in Bharatpur, who had built a vehicle out of junkyard parts to transport people.
In another village visit, he noticed that children were unable to study due to lack of electricity and had to inhale toxic fumes from kerosene lamps. This spurred the young innovators to devise their own energy solution for low-income consumers.
The Gram Power model helps rural consumers bypass conventional grid supplies and also costs less than the monthly spend on kerosene. Consumers pay Rs 75 per month under the pay-as-you-go model for standard grid connection instead of spending Rs 200 on kerosene and cell phone charging.
In May, Gram Power set up India’s first ‘Smart Microgrid’ in a village close to Todaraisingh Mandal in Tonk district of Rajasthan, which had no connection to the state electricity grid. The startup now supplies power to around 200 people, allowing them to operate CFL bulbs, TVs, fans, buttermilk machines, radios and other common household appliances.
“Our smart grid site is the only village in the entire area that is receiving reliable on demand power 24×7,” says Khaitan. The service includes innovative metering and monitoring devices that allows people to purchase power in prepaid schemes.
In centralised electricity systems such as the national grid, around 65% of energy gets wasted due to theft, pilferage, heat loss in transmission lines and power stations. Gram Power’s technology detects and eliminates energy theft and pilferage to increase energy distribution efficiency.
Eric Brewer, vice-president of infrastructure at Google and a professor at UCBerkeley who mentors Gram Power, believes people in rural areas are historically left out because the set up costs are too high, whether for grid connection or for home solar systems.
“Microgrids spread these costs across more homes, and the Gram Power solution further reduces costs via efficiency and clever financing,” says Brewer.
For example, just Rs 10 per day buys enough prepaid recharge for 9 hours of lighting, 6 hours of a ceiling fan and TV, and charging a cellphone. A local entrepreneur purchases bulk energy credit from Gram Power and then sells it to the locals using Gram Power’s prepaid energy selling device.
Apart from generating grassroots employment, this makes power affordable, allowing consumers to use their disposable incomes to purchase power.
According to Khalid Isar, country general manager at Alibaba.com India, Gram Power provides a perfect example of how a young entrepreneur can access the materials needed online in order to develop cutting-edge technology offline.
Alibaba.com has given grants to Khaitan and also helped him in the initial stage of his project to source suppliers. Khaitan, who earlier has been involved in solar cell research at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, pitched his company at various business competitions in the US, winning many of them.
This way, the startup raised seed capital of $80,000 in the form of grants from Alibaba.com, Intel Corp, the world’s largest maker of computer chips and UC Berkeley.
Last year, US space agency Nasa selected Gram Power’s technology among the top-10 cleantech innovations from around the world. One of the attendees at the conference was a Swiss company, which was so impressed by their work that it made an angel investment of around $1 million (Rs 5 crore) in Gram Power this year.
Gram Power, which has already powered 10 villages in Rajasthan, is now looking to form strong partnerships to increase access to their technology through state and central renewable energy ministries.
The startup has a target to deploy 20 selfowned smart microgrids with 250 kilowattpeak of generation, catering to almost 40,000 people over the next 12 months.
It is also working on a contract with the Rajasthan government to operate, manage, and make around 80 sustainable solar microgrids in rural Rajasthan.Gram Power is now betting big to eliminate power theft, lower payment collection expenses, and intelligently integrate different forms of renewable energy generation with the national grid.
“Our smart grid technology can sustainably create access to electricity for millions living without this basic resource,” says Khaitan.
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