MATHURA, India — Salma Khan, a petite, young woman, shows off her one room store where she sells food products such as lentils, flour, packaged noodles and biscuits. She is particularly pleased about two recent additions to her tiny village shop. In the midst of the stacks of groceries is a pedestal fan that helps her combat summer heat of above 40 C, and high on the wall in one corner is a foot-long fluorescent light. Both are powered by a battery connected to a solar panel on the roof of the shop.
Simpa Networks, a company headquartered in Noida, a vibrant business district near New Delhi, supplied her with the energy pack that came equipped with lights, a small fan and ports that can be used for charging two mobile phones.
Bridging the “power gap”
It is not cheap. Customers have to make a down payment of 2,500 rupees ($43.2) and then pay monthly installments of about 780 rupees over 28 months before they get to keep the kit. But in a country where about 400 million people have no access to power, Companies like Simpa are playing a crucial role in bridging the “power gap” in a country with a notorious infrastructure.
Watching videos of Mera Gao Power always leaves you with a good feeling. They typically start showing a village in darkness and a woman struggling with work in the light of a kerosene lamp and end by showing bright LED lights and smiling faces. Provide solar-powered lights to villages that had never seen electricity, let the villagers pay for it out of their savings on kerosene spends—way to go!
The going was good in the beginning. MGP lit up the first village in December 2011 and by mid-2013, had covered 300 villages. Its NRI-founder, Nikhil Jaisinghani, said in a conference in 2013 that he had a “scaleable model” and 30 per cent rate of return was possible.
Henri Winand runs a fuel-cell company. Fuel cells run on hydrogen to produce energy. So why has Intelligent Energy, Winand’s firm, just agreed a deal to manage some 16,000 diesel-powered mobile network towers in India?
One reason is that the deal will bring in an estimated £1 billion ($1.5 billion) in revenue for the company over the next decade. For a business that posted a £48-million loss on revenue of £13.6 million for the last full year, the income certainly helps. But the larger reason is that Winand plans, over time, to replace the diesel generators that power rural mobile towers in India with fuel cells. Winand can become his own best customer.
Winand’s plan might just work. Intelligent Energy has been in India since 2009, and already manages 10,000 of the country’s mobile towers, many of which are off-grid for eight hours a day. As the diesel generators that keep them running the rest of the time begin to mature, Winand has started replacing the majority of them with fuel cells. Speaking with Quartz before news of the new deal, Winand characterized the tower agreement with gleeful confidence: “We have eight-year visibility,” he said, referring to the minimum length of the contract. “It’s like a pension fund.”