Winners of ‘Solar for All’ Contest Will Build Microgrids in India

Affordable solar energy for the global population without access to electricity. That is the mission of Solar For All, an initiative founded by the Canopus Foundation, which supports the growth of social enterprises developing renewable energy. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) joined efforts with Solar For All to administer their second contest for innovative community solar electrification solutions in Mumbai, India.

Two winners, Boond Engineering and Mera Gao Power, claimed first prize: a €200,000 low-interest loan to build microgrids in India. Each company features a different approach to deliver basic electricity for families unconnected to the national electricity grid.

Boond Engineering designs microgrids to help 40 to 200 families per grid gain new electricity access for lighting, fans, radio and TV. CEO, Rustam Sengupta explained, “Boond’s primary value is to ensure a democratic and 24/7 access to power at an optimized pricing. We want to get people who are presently underserved to get clean energy so that they can also join the economic progress march with the rest of the country.”

Boond Engineering employee prepares to set up a solar microgrid. Photo courtesy of Boond Engineering.
Boond Engineering employee prepares to set up a solar microgrid. Photo courtesy of Boond Engineering.

Mera Gao Power (MGP) builds microgrids providing one or two dozen customers with two lights and ability to charge a cell phone. MGP has already constructed an impressive 1,500 microgrids that serve over 130,000 people in Uttar Pradesh. Despite these inroads, Uttar Pradesh is home to 120 million people without access to electricity. There is still a long way to go to illuminate families living in the dark.

MGP tries to reach the most remote communities. “Other companies may target the wealthiest portion of the off-grid market.” MGP Co-founder, Nikhil Jaisinghani explained in his final presentation. Indeed these “wealthy families” are still poor by many standards. “Our business was designed from the beginning to target the poorest off-grid communities, who will wait the longest to receive affordable clean energy solutions.”

Bettervest GmbH, a crowdfunding company based in Frankfurt, Germany, that plays an important funding role for the impact investing community, will help raise the €200,000 for the prize winners, who will then repay the award at six percent interest for eight years.”

The energy access sector is still new, so banks are slow to play a crucial lending role, which makes working capital hard to come by. “The six percent rate is more attractive than the alternative, which is roughly 11-18 percent in India. The energy access sector does not generate large return, so a typical loan is very difficult for our company to cover,” Sengupta explained.

Two other Solar for All finalists presented at Intersolar India, which hosted the contest alongside its conference in Mumbai, Tanzania-based Devergy and Vanuatu-based Village Infrastructure Angels. Devergy won third prize with a €10,000 grant from the Siemens Foundation. This award also includes access to the Siemens network, which will help with mentoring and fundraising. By virtue of being a finalist, Village Infrastructure Angels receives Betterveste consulting to launch their own crowdfunding campaign.

At the first Solar For All contest in 2010, Greenlight Planet won first prize, a repayable €200,000 low-interest loan to build out their business selling solar products to people around the world without access to electricity. Since then, Greenlight Planet has gone on to great success and significant follow on investment in the energy access sector. Hopefully each Solar For All finalist can follow a similar path.

Changing Planet

Chad Lipton is currently starting a business delivering clean energy services in Cote d’Ivoire. Previously, Chad worked for National Geographic where he managed a grant program to fund entrepreneurs delivering innovative energy solutions to communities facing economic, climate change, environmental and other challenges. In 2013, Chad submitted the winning idea to be the subject matter for National Geographic's challenge competition, called the Terra Watt Prize. He helped develop the prize objective, which is to address the challenges of energy access by facilitating the flow of capital between entrepreneurs and investors and also to identify viable business models. Before National Geographic, Chad worked for Elysian Energy as an energy auditor, carrying out site visits and analysis in the residential energy field. Prior to Elysian Energy, Chad worked in the field of carbon management, where he performed site verification for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. From 2004-07, Chad worked as an environmental health specialist in Africa carrying out water and sanitation projects in Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique. Chad has master’s degrees in Environmental Health Science and International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University.