Mera Gaon Power (MGP), set up in 2010 by Nikhil Jaisinghani and Brian Shaad, was announced the winner of the recent National Geographic Society’s TerraWatt Price competition. The competition rewards and supports innovative solutions that address energy poverty. MGP provides electricity to approximately 20,000 households in over 1,200 off-grid villages in Uttar Pradesh by installing solar powered mini grids.
A number of companies are trying to install such systems in remote villages that can not be reached by the national grid however such grids are quite expensive and take a significant amount of time to set-up. Most such mini grids convert DC power into AC for transmission which is often re-converted in to DC power for lighting an LED light or charging a mobile phone. MGP instead decided to create a grid that will directly transmit DC power to houses in close proximity in achieve significant cost reduction enabling them to install a system for as low as $500. MGP’s grids are low voltage grids supplying only 24 watts of power while most other grids are 220 or higher voltage.
The big cost savings come from eliminating the need for an inverter to convert DC power to AC. The low voltage transmission also enables the use inexpensive aluminium wire instead of copper wire which is more prone to getting stolen. Selection of the village for installation is extremely important and a thorough mapping exercise is conducted to understand the topology and wire layout options. This is necessary to make sure there are enough houses within 100 metres from the generation source to make the project viable.
The system has been designed using off the shelf materials and cutting the specs to bare minimum. It includes two to four solar panels, two batteries, a battery cabinet, a charge controller, wires, a current control device, lights, and phone chargers. The proximity and simplicity of design enables the company’s engineers to install a system in just one day.
The company has also installed circuit breakers in order to control overloading. “It simply detects a current in excess of the allowed current. When someone connects a fan, the system turns off and waits for the fan to be removed. Then the system turns back on.” says Mr. Jaisinghani. For Rs. 25 per week, a house gets seven hours of power per day which is less than the typical cost of kerosene, which could start anywhere from Rs. 30 per week.
MGP’s easy solar power allows children to study at night, adults to continue working, and without kerosene, indoor air quality is improved, reducing respiratory illnesses. Image: Courtesy TheBetterIndia
In the early days the company nearly shut down due to inefficiencies in payment collection and lack of enforcement. Subsequently they devised a weekly collection system aided by a set of self-resetting fuses which shut the electricity off for particular houses if the payments aren’t received in time. A local village electrician trained by the company can turn the light on once the payment is received.
Mr. Jaisinghani says that they are currently showing a payback period of just over 3 years and are working to get it down to under 3 years. He adds “we have created a unique configuration which makes serving off-grid villages commercially viable without subsidies. We aim to prove our model at a larger scale reaching 1 lakh customers by early 2016.”
Describing the impact MGP has created in the lives of people in these villages Jaisinghani says, “a number of customers have begun using the lighting to expand their home businesses. In particular, we have seen women’s groups that do embroidery make saris into the evenings. They sell the embroidered saris to a wholesaler in Lucknow at a nice profit. Due to their improved lighting, they are able to earn more each month than they were before. Other businesses have included local shops, pharmacies, bakers, and even a man who makes eye glasses by hand”.
We leave you with a video of Jaisinghani explaining the operations of MGP and how their low power micro grid is reaching out to rural houses in India: