Pointing the way to a clean energy future

Selling Solar in India Through the Lens of Google Glass

 

Solar power is the key to ending energy poverty.

No, this isn’t some out-of-touch Silicon Valley pipe dream. Innovative companies like Simpa Networks and OMC power are pioneering new energy models for rural populations that deliver everything from LED lightbulbs and Skinny Grids to Off-Grid Wi-Fi to pay-as-you-go solar home systems.

To better understand how they empower people, the Sierra Club and Center for American Progress (CAP) teamed up to document their efforts in a hotbed of off-grid solar activity: Uttar Pradesh, India. We brought along a pair of Google Glass to document our travel and give the world a first-hand look at our global distributed energy future.

 

If there’s one thing we learned about their efforts, it’s this: small is big.

All those small-scale solar home systems and mini-grids these companies are building add up to a whopping $12 billion energy market potential. Even more exciting, this market is already booming. From 80,000 solar home systems installed every month in Bangladesh, to a 95-percent compound annual growth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa’s off-grid solar market, it’s easy to see why investment is rapidly growing.

But, despite all this growth, public institutions have still not stepped up to provide the investment these companies require to truly scale their efforts. Perhaps the lone exception to this rule is President Obama’s exciting new “Beyond the Grid” initiative, but even that is not enough. That’s why entrepreneurs are demanding $500 million to catalyze faster growth from leading development institutions like the World Bank.

But lost amidst growth rates and investments is the human story yearning to be told.

From Mathura to Atroli, solar power has helped transform the lives of countless Indians. In Mathura, we met farmers who have saved untold amounts of money by switching from expensive kerosene lamps to inexpensive solar power. We met rural shopkeepers who are now able to stay open later in the evenings, which means more money in their pockets. And we met rural seamstresses who now use cleaner, cheaper solar lighting when they weave India’s famous saris.

 

But perhaps the most poignant moment was when we heard from Vishal Shukla, a local villager who now lives and works in Delhi for a non-profit organization, about the effect solar energy has had on his daughter’s lives. When he was growing up, Vishal didn’t have reliable light to study by in the evenings, and he struggled with his education. Fast forward to 2014, and Vishal’s daughters now enjoy cheaper, cleaner solar LED lighting that helps them study at night. Thanks to solar lamps, his daughters now have a brighter future, both literally and figuratively.

This is a testament to the immediate and transformative effect even small amounts of clean energy can have on people’s lives. By leapfrogging the dirty, ineffective centralized energy grid that has failed these rural populations for decades, companies are building an entirely new system, one which puts power directly in the hands of the people.

To see more of the effect solar is having on the lives of people like Vishal follow #PutSolarOnIt on Twitter as the Sierra Club and CAP release behind-the-scenes footage of our trip all this week. Then on Thursday, join us for the world premiere of our documentary, “Harnessing the Sun to Keep Lights on in India,” and see why solar truly is the key to ending energy poverty.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program, and Vrinda Manglik, Associate Campaign Representative, International Clean Energy Access