That’s because when people’s phones are charged they use them more, and when they use them more the mobile phone companies make more money — significantly more money. This has created a dynamic that turns the traditional view of delivering energy access on its head. Instead of seeing it as an ‘expensive development project’ it is increasingly becoming a lucrative business proposition.
It just so happens that taking advantage of this proposition solves another vexing problem for mobile phone providers — costly diesel. By switching out the expensive diesel gen sets that power their off-grid “base stations” — radio towers that convert electricity into radio waves — the companies save money. In India alone there are an estimated 400,000 towers over 150,000 of which don’t have reliable access to the grid.
This is where Community Power comes in. These base stations act as anchor clients for small scale energy projects by committing to the purchase of a majority of the power supply generated by a company like OMC. With this guaranteed revenue stream in hand, OMC can then sell their excess power generation to local communities via mini-grids, transportable batteries, or by directly charging applications (like phones) on site. This helps the mobile phone companies keep their customers phones charged, it reduces their monthly power bills, and it electrify’s rural communities — this is community power.
The OMC deal is historic because it’s the first community power scheme to have a client like Bharti that offers tremendous opportunities for scaling. But even more importantly, OMC may be proving that this model is even more viable than we previously thought.
That’s because the key to making this model ‘bankable’ (convincing financial institutions to actually pony up the money to make it happen) is the mobile phone towers anchor demand which provides financial institutions with the comfort of guaranteed revenue. At least that’s the conventional wisdom — that you need anchor tenants.
The most interesting and exciting piece of information from staff conversations with OMC is that over half of all revenue may come from the community power portion of the business — not from supplying the towers. Forget the tower companies, the people themselves are bankable. Something people like Harish Hande at SELCO have been telling bankers for decades.
Worse, while financial institutions refuse to believe community power and distributed generation options are bankable, the policies that are in place to help spur development of clean energy almost entirely support centralized on grid installations. That’s why they are routinely skirted by entrepreneurs like OMC, because they are not designed for them and they are more hassle than they are worth. And that’s why OMC has yet to engage with the Indian solar mission, and had no idea that the Uttar Pradesh government was developing a 1 GW solar policy. Forget subsidies, these business models are the real deal.
So how is it that despite all these obstacles, and a lack of subsidies, the poor are indeed bankable? Because there is no correlation between the price of electricity and development. The only correlation is between the existence of electricity and development. India’s rural poor understand that and they are willing to pay for power — but it needs to actually reach them.
Which takes us back to OMC and the arrival of community power. As cliché as it is to say the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones and the centralized fossil fuel age won’t end because we run out of fossil fuel. It will end because disruptive innovations like community power help break the political power of entrenched industries and the stranglehold the status quo has on innovative approaches. So forget the grid, Community Power is here and it’s going to change the world.
Justin Guay is the Washington Representative of the Sierra Club International Program and formerly worked with the Sierra Club’s Green Livelihoods Center located in Mumbai, India to develop collaborative projects focused on renewable energy, development, and environmental sustainability.