Blogs, Solar

Entrepreneurs Key to Spreading Renewable Energy to Off-grid Villages

When I think about the IEEE Smart Village approach to renewable energy, a couple of related concepts are key to the program’s success; entrepreneurship and empowerment. The approach to solving energy poverty, a building block to solving poverty in general, is to put the business model into the hands of the people in which it will benefit and empower them to create the benefits for themselves. Both concepts are the cornerstones to the business model being implemented by the IEEE Smart Village Initiative, which is assisting entrepreneurs in developing countries to bring renewable energy-based electricity to off-grid villages.

For many of us in the developed world, the range of renewable energy options provides a degree of independence from the grid, a means to a sustainable energy future and perhaps a better environmental alternative for the planet. But for the world’s 1.3 billion people without access to electricity – nearly 20 percent of the world population – renewable energy-related solutions are the most likely route out of energy poverty. Rural electrification programs can extend the grid, but the process is slow, costly and often dependent on government or corporations that may not be motivated solely by what is in the best interests of the villages that need their service.

For those of us in the developed world that take reliable daily energy for granted, we don’t recognize how electricity powers so many aspects of our lives. In an increasingly digital world, electricity is the driver, the means to education, productivity and leisure. Achieving our potential depends on light to read by, communication with the outside world, manufacturing, technology for creating value and prosperity – all driven by electricity.

At IEEE Smart Village, we are tapping the entrepreneurial spirit to nurture the introduction of locally owned and operated, renewable energy-based businesses. This approach can rapidly bring modest and life-changing electricity to remote villages. Perhaps more importantly, the availability of electricity provides the basis for sustainable economic local development. It’s a very powerful notion and one that we’re actually putting into practice in rural India, Africa and Southeast Asia, where most energy poverty persists. Once you can light the darkness, communicate, drive irrigation pumps, tap the potential of the Internet and interact with a bigger world beyond your village, the ability to produce new value chains and shared prosperity lies within your grasp.

The IEEE Smart Village solution swiftly introduces positive change at the grass-roots level, rather than via a bureaucracy-heavy, top-down approach used by many international programs. Thus it is not prescriptive. We do not have the answers to what off-grid villages across the world need. The appropriate solutions can only come from the people themselves. Once that’s determined, we provide the technology, via seed-funding and business know-how, through our Learning Beyond the Light Bulb educational program, to help them help themselves.

IEEE Smart Village Initiative begins the process by listening. We start with a local survey to learn what makes a community “tick”? We have discovered that even neighboring villages can have significantly different resource bases, histories, social structures and core needs. Finding and mentoring future “energy entrepreneurs” in the village who have the leadership qualities, aptitude, and entrepreneurial hunger to establish and grow a business so intimately tied to their community’s future is critical to success. Once we have these elements in-hand, we produce appropriate technologies to assist an entrepreneur and his or her community in realizing their aspirations. Critical to success after identifying the need and determining a technical system – is the operation and implementation ultimately by the villagers themselves.

“Appropriate technologies” can mean an energy kiosk composed of a small array of solar panels, an inverter, battery storage and interfaces for charging cell phones and radios. It can mean solar home kits that include similar components to provide light and charging capabilities. Nimble, modestly sized micro-grids, using these components, can bring electricity to clusters of homes or public buildings.

Thanks to the modest scale of these open-source technologies and their dropping costs, the resulting business model can enable a village energy entrepreneur to offer fellow community members clean, sustainable electricity, at lower cost than they already spend on kerosene and other dirty fuels. In turn, electricity provides the means to produce new value streams, jobs, improved health, building a positive future for the entire village community.

Back to the linchpin of this approach: the entrepreneur. In some locales, we find leaders without a business or technical background. In other places we find business-savvy people who lack knowledge of small-scale electrical systems. That’s where IEEE Smart Village provides resources, education, vocational training and partnerships. We provide the standard operating procedures that support successful businesses as well as the vocational training in the energy equipment operations. And, thanks to the IEEE Global Classroom at Regis University’s Posner Center in Denver, Colo., we can tie these nascent entrepreneurs and local micro-utility operators together via the Internet to learn from IEEE volunteer member mentors as well as each other’s work.

To make such a mission succeed, IEEE Smart Village needs both human and financial resources. If you’re a successful business leader, we can use your expertise to teach the skills other fledgling entrepreneurs need to succeed. If you have design and operational expertise in the renewable energy-based sector, we can use your help in mentoring these fledgling remote micro-utility enterprises. IEEE Smart Village provides an opportunity to leverage your, expertise and resources for the benefit of humanity.

With nearly 20 percent of the world’s people lacking access to electricity, this is a massive, global challenge. Our approach is already gaining traction in villages in northern India and sub-Saharan Africa. Visit the IEEE Smart Village’s website, become a volunteer and/or make a donation. We’re lighting the world, one village at a time. Join us!