Yashraj Khaitan was 20 when he began his campaign for good. In 2009, this student of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, travelled to several remote villages in Rajasthan and Bihar as part of a university project.
“I was a member of this group named Engineers without Borders, which basically identifies ways to use technology to solve global issues. On my trip to these villages, I saw how so many of them did not have power and basic amenities, that we tend to take for granted,” he says.
That’s when Gram Power happened. Khaitan founded the company with his batchmate to provide remote areas with on-demand, reliable electricity, with an affordable prepaid purchase model.
“Despite the infrastructural problems in these villages, I discovered one thing — almost everyone has access to cellphones. There were local charging centres within villages where people could charge their phones,” he says.
Taking advantage of the revolutions in cellphone technology, Khaitan came up with a similar plan for electricity. Gram Power identified remote villages that were off the grid or ones that received less than six hours of power a day. A microgrid, powered by solar panels, was set up in a small Rajasthani hamlet, to eventually provide power for lights, fans and televisions. However, there was one key innovation about the microgrid system that set it apart — there were smart prepaid meters for each house with a pay-per-use arrangement. These meters would draw energy from the central grid and also help villagers keep track of how much prepaid energy was remaining.
“This meant that villagers could purchase power at their doorstep on a daily basis, just like they would get a cellphone recharge plan. Rs10 a day provides enough power to operate fans, lights, cellphones and televisions,” says Khaitan. The meter system also made villagers more conscious about how much power they use — a screen on the meter displays the balance in terms of how many hours of power they can still use.
The smart meter system also eliminated the issue of power theft as the smart meters were monitored with the Internet. “If anyone tries to tamper with the smart meters, we instantly get to know and can shut their power supply.” After the success of this model, several people from nearby villages approached Khaitan to install a similar model in their villages.
Gram Power is steadily expanding the facility to places outside Rajasthan and has installed a grid in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Khaitan is humbled by the results of the initiative and the reception it has received. “I realised that the rural consumers really value a high utility service. With the right business model, one can really help make their lives better,” he says. His only message to people embarking on similar missions is to be very perseverant.
“You’re dealing with people who haven’t even experienced a lot of the things that you’re used to, so the perspective has to very different.”