Delivering rice-fired, affordable electricity for rural India
In India, 70 percent of its population lives in the countryside, scattered among 80,000 villages, many of which are situated in rugged terrain and inaccessible locations. Not surprisingly, most of these remote villages are off the national electric power grid. Some villages exist with an extremely low and irregular electricity supply, frequently depending on diesel or kerosene-powered generators. Many others simply have no electricity at all. That’s how Manoj Sinha grew up, reading by a gas lamp or traveling miles to an electrical supply.

A bright student, Manoj was haunted by his energy-starved childhood and dreamed of bringing power to rural villages like his.

Fortunately, he found others who shared his vision at the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Darden School of Business while earning a master’s of business administration. Manoj teamed with fellow students Charles "Chip" Ransler and Gyanesh Pandey to form Husk Power Systems (HPS).

Their novel venture, which burns agricultural waste into low-cost electricity, won the grand prize in the 2008 Dell Social Innovation Challenge.
  • About 78 million rural Indians households had no access to electricity, according to the 2001 national census.
  • On average, each HPS minipower plant serves about 400 households and replaces 11,095 gallons of kerosene and 4,755 gallons of diesel annually.
The Dell Social Innovation Challenge
The University of Texas, with support from Dell, is building a global community of student innovators through our annual Dell Social Innovation Challenge and providing them with business mentors and cash prizes to solve the world's most pressing social issues. Since the challenge began in 2007, more than 15,000 students from 90 countries have proposed more than 3,000 ideas for tackling social and environmental problems. We’ve awarded more than $350,000 to teams from around the world who’ve had the courage, vision and passion to turn their "What Ifs" into action. Learn more about the challenge.

Challenge

Solution 

Benefit

Challenge:Solution:Benefit:
400 million people in rural India have no access to electricity. Others either have limited access to electricity or rely on power generated by nonrenewable sources such as kerosene and coal. Lack of electricity hinders education, business and agriculture among the 70 percent of India’s population who live in villages.Use rice husks, a plentiful, renewable resource, to produce affordable, clean, locally generated electricity. This overcomes difficulties associated with centralized power generation, insufficient distribution, affordability and environmental impact.Sixty minipower plants are powering 25,000 households in more than 25 villages and hamlets at a cost of approximately $1 per watt of generation — the cheapest capital cost in the world.


The rewards of winning
HPS began with a single power plant in August 2007, when the team electrified its first village in Bihar, the home state of Manoj and Gyanesh, with a 100-percent biomass-powered plant. The company uses a proprietary technology to convert a plentiful resource, discarded rice husks, into electricity. Agricultural waste such as rice husks are frequently burned to generate heat in the developing world, but are not often used for generating electricity.

Winning the Dell Social Innovation Challenge in 2008 marked a turning point in the growth of Husk Power Systems. The prize money enabled the start-up to expand, and the recognition catapulted their venture onto the national scene. That same year, HPS was named Social Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2008 by FastCompany, the team members were named Pop!Tech Fellows and the venture won a Shell Foundation Grant. Since then the enterprise has garnered even more awards, which have helped attract venture capital funds.

"This enabled us to expand our base to about 36,000 people and helped legitimize our business in the eyes of the investment community," Manoj recalled.

Since winning, HPS’ growth has been explosive. HPS has trained and employs more than 300 local people. It already operates about 85 power plants reaching 375 villages and has saved $1.25 million for the households it serves. Its ambitious growth plans call for installing more than 2,000 plants and recruiting 7,500 people from villages over the coming years. Funding from the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund will underwrite installation of up to 20 plants in rural Tanzania and a pilot project of five power plants in Uganda.

Turning agriculture into rice-fired electricity
HPS provides low-cost power as a pay-for-usage service, which is similar that of utilities in the U.S. Access to affordable energy has transformed the lives of villagers in many ways, including:

  • Farmers have reduced irrigation costs by 45 percent.
  • Entrepreneurs can create businesses and increase profit margins.
  • Households dramatically reduce cost/lumen-output ratio (more than 200 percent savings).
  • Productivity increases as fuel doesn’t have to be procured on foot from cities that are usually five to seven miles away.
  • Ash from burning the rice husks can be used as fertilizer or as a low-cost ingredient for cement.
  • More than 50 tons of CO2 have been sequestered.