Four men who are energising villages with electricity generated in their own backyard using rice husk with support from the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Lighting up villages in the remote areas of East and West Champaran, Muzzarpur, Sitamarhi and Lakisarai in Bihar is the Husk Power System (HPS), a company set up by electrical engineer Gyanesh Pandey together with his friends Ratnesh Yadhav, Manoj Sinha and Charles Ransler, and with support from the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

The four men, who are in their mid-thirties, have been friends since childhood. They share a deep love for their State and a desire to develop it on par with the country's best States. In fact, it was the lack of electricity in their respective villages that prevented them from studying there, and which motivated them to set up HPS.

Gyanesh, who belongs to Baithania village, studied in schools outside the State and came home only during the holidays. After completing an engineering course from the Banaras Hindu University, he went to the US for a Masters in engineering. Then he began studying non-conventional energy sources — solar, wind energy and bio-diesel — but these did not seem viable for Bihar.

Finally, back in India, he stumbled across the idea of generating power from rice husk through a person providing gasification technology for rice mills. Instead of using diesel for the turbines, however, he hit on the idea of rice husk. The IITs had done some research work on power generation from rice husk. His job was to turn the idea into a reality. The first plant was set up in the wilderness of Tamkuha, West Champaran, about seven hours from Patna, in 2007. At the plant, rice husk — a waste product — is converted into combustible gas that drives a small turbine. Till today, HPS has set up 60 mini power plants, each generating enough power for about four villages. Together, the mini plants are lighting up over 250 villages with a population of 3 lakh. About 85-90 per cent of the village homes that have electricity pay Rs 80 a month for a six-hour supply every day. This is enough to charge their mobile phones and turn on two CFL bulbs, which help the children finish their studies for the day and the adults their household chores. There is also an initial connection charge of Rs 100. Some pay a little extra to run a television set too.

The transformation seen in Bihar's development is literally powered by the IIT graduates and MBAs, and people such as Pandey, Yadav and Sinha. The for-profit social enterprise's design philosophy is to “simplifying the system so that even a high-school educated villager can be trained to run the power plant”. HPS has provided employment to 300 villagers. Once the plant is set up, the villagers take over its operation and ensure it runs smoothly. A HPS University is on the cards. Training centres for employees of the plants are already functioning in Barauni, Patna, Tamkuha and other plant sites.

Harnessing local strengths

Each power plant has reduced kerosene consumption by 42,000 litres and diesel consumption by 18,000 litres in the villages it covers. As the biomass-based power plants are non-polluting, it is estimated that from 2007 to August 2010 HPS has helped cut carbon dioxide emission by 50,000 tonnes. The company has been shortlisted for the Ashden Award for sustainable energy.

Charles Ransler of HPS says that roughly 1.5 kg of rice husk yields 1 kwh (kilowatts per hour) electricity, which is generated through an alternator and delivered in three phases of 220 volts. The grids set up by HPS are suited to village sizes. In fact, says Ratnesh Yadav, traditional electrification routes have failed here. Decentralised, off-grid renewable energy is the need of the hour.

Pandey's work has won him not just kudos but substantial investments in HPS from the Shell Foundation and the Acumen Fund. The World Bank and the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy too are supporting the project. The prize money from a host of social innovation business plan competitions — including the Santa Clara Global Social Benefit Incubator — has been ploughed into HPS.

An important factor in the success of HPS has been the recruitment of reliable people on the ground, who develop a sense of ownership. It is a serious community investment, says Pandey.

The Husk Power University has trained the first 100 people to run the power plants. The rural university functions independently of HPS through a foundation called Samta Samriddhi. HPS is now developing a franchising model to help take it to the global social enterprise stage. It will enlist Indian partners ready to open their own HPS franchise. The partners will receive training as well as some of the capital required, besides sharing some of the risk involved, such as hiring and maintaining quality ground staff.

For Pandey, providing power to rural India is just one part of his big dream. Health, education, agriculture and women's empowerment are other aspects of rural life that he seeks to delve into. “With a network of roads coming to the region we will piggyback on the plants to set up medical care and health units in 2014,” says Pandey.

Women's empowerment

As part of corporate social responsibility, HPS is already paying for the education of 250 children. By mid-2011, he hopes to set up Internet facilities and radio stations for education. Teachers will be trained at the local primary schools. His vision for the employment and empowerment of women is already taking shape. For the past year, he has been training about 200 women to make incense sticks using the char from the rice husk. He has also developed a machine, which costs about Rs 3,000, to speed up production and maintain quality. So far, 30 women have learnt to use the machine and they earn about Rs 60 a day.

With the quantity of rice husk it generates, Bihar has the capacity to run 2,000 mini power plants. However, owing to porous borders, says Pandey, the husk is diverted to Haryana and other States to make wooden boards and bricks.

It has been a bumpy ride on the development path for the HPS team. The 2003 Electricity Act exempted licences for the generation and distribution of electricity in villages. When 25 HPS plants were up and running, an officer of the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Resources raised an issue by saying that the State had not defined rural areas. “We would have had to shut down, but we found the clause of a 2005 ruling that all areas governed by panchayats are rural areas,” says Pandey. Some luck, some good people have helped us, he says.

It has been a struggle, but the sight of villages lit up and children studying at home makes it worthwhile, says Pandey.

(This article was published on March 10, 2011)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.