Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar
On a January evening, Anand is shelling betel nuts by the light of an electric lamp in Halliberu, his village in India’s Karnataka state.
As his friends gather on the lamp-lit porch to swap stories, children play in the yard, Bloomberg Markets reports in its May issue. Inside, after decades of cooking in the dark, Anand’s mother prepares the evening meal while a visiting neighbor weaves garlands of flowers.
In October, Bangalore-based Simpa Networks Inc. installed a solar panel on Anand’s whitewashed adobe house along with a small metal box in his living room to monitor electricity usage. The 25-year-old rice farmer, who goes by one name, purchases energy credits to unlock the system via his mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go model.
When his balance runs low, Anand pays 50 rupees ($1) -- money he would have otherwise spent on kerosene. Then he receives a text message with a code to punch into the box, giving him about another week of electric light.
When he pays off the full cost of the system in about three years, it will be unlocked and he will get free power.
Before the solar panel arrived, Anand lit his home with kerosene lamps that streaked the walls with smoke and barely penetrated the darkness of the village, which lacks electrification. Twice a week, he trudged 45 minutes to a nearby town just to charge his phone.
“Things are much easier now,” Anand says, describing how he used to go through 5 liters (1 gallon) of fuel a month, almost half of it bought from the black market at four times the price of government kerosene rations. “There was never enough.”
Anand is on the crest of an electricity revolution that’s sweeping through power markets and threatening traditional utilities’ dominance of the world’s supply.
From the poorest parts of Africa and Asia to the most- developed regions in the U.S. and Europe, solar units such as Anand’s and small-scale wind and biomass generators promise to extend access to power to more people than ever before. In the developing world, they’re slashing costs in the process.
Across India and Africa, startups and mobile phone companies are developing so-called microgrids, in which stand- alone generators power clusters of homes and businesses in places where electric utilities have never operated.
In Europe, cooperatives are building their own generators and selling power back to the national or regional grid while information technology developers and phone companies are helping consumers reduce their power consumption and pay less for the electricity they do use.
‘Power to the People’
Disruptive to the economic status quo, the transformation opens up huge opportunities to consumers who may find themselves trading power in the future much as they swap information over the Internet today, he says.
“This is power to the people,” says Rifkin, who was once best known as a leading opponent of the Vietnam War.
For now, though, the alternative-energy industry still relies on subsidies in much of the developed world, and governments are reining in aid for clean energy as they struggle to trim their budget deficits.
Germany, the biggest market for solar panels, plans to cut subsidies to owners of photovoltaic generators by up to 29 percent in April and said it would impose monthly reductions thereafter.
End of the Boom
“Governments are running out of cash,” says Benny Peiser, director of the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, which is described by its chairman, former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, as “open-minded on the contested science of global warming.”
“The boom will eventually come to a halt once the subsidies come to a halt,” he says.
And yet as subsidies are wound down in Europe, investors such as Boston-based Denham Capital Management LP are shifting their attention to developing markets. In March, Denham invested $190 million in a joint venture with Madrid-based Fotowatio SL to build solar parks in South Africa and Latin America.
India has 30 gigawatts of mainly diesel generators that could be replaced by cheaper solar power tomorrow, says Tarun Kapoor, joint secretary at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. (One gigawatt is enough energy to power about 200,000 U.S. homes.)
Utilities Under Pressure
Within a decade, installing photovoltaic panels may be cheaper for many families than buying power from national grids in much of the world, including the U.S., Japan, Brazil and the U.K., according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The ultimate losers in this shifting balance of power may be established utilities. They’ve invested billions of dollars in centralized networks that are slowly being edged out of markets they’ve dominated.
“Over the next decade, utilities are going to be under a lot of pressure,” says Gerard Reid, a partner and energy banker at London-based investment adviser Alexa Capital.
Reid predicts that power prices will come down across Europe as new entrants that create electricity from renewable sources break up traditional utilities’ oligopoly.
As it is, with big utilities also generating more and more power with alternative fuels, renewables provided 20 percent of the European Union’s power in 2010, up from 14 percent five years earlier, according to the Paris-based Renewable Energy Observatory. The EU aims to raise that share to about 34 percent by 2020.
Enter the Phone Company
European utility stocks are already suffering as entrants using new technologies pour in to meet demand. The Bloomberg European Utilities Index touched a seven-year low in September, and German power futures contracts were in the doldrums as of March 12.
The changing makeup of power generation is attracting companies from other industries as well as smaller developers such as Simpa Networks, the venture capital-backed developer that installed Anand’s solar panels.
Bharti Airtel Ltd. (BHARTI), India’s biggest mobile operator, for example, has signed on as a partner to a pay-as-you-go solar microutility called SharedSolar to sell airtime and electricity to Bharti’s 50 million subscribers in Africa.
In many underdeveloped regions, it hasn’t made economic sense for utilities to build the capital-intensive infrastructure required to deliver energy from traditional sources.
‘Second Great Leapfrog’
In parts of Africa, the poor, lacking electricity, buy power in the form of batteries, kerosene and candles; in effect, they’re paying as much as $4 per kilowatt-hour, according to Vijay Modi, a Columbia University professor who heads the SharedSolar project. That’s about 66 times what a resident of Manhattan is charged for electricity.
Simpa co-founder Paul Needham says filling the power gap will entail a transformation similar to the one in which mobile phones bypassed traditional landlines to deliver telecommunications services to vast populations in India and Africa.
“What we’re seeing is the beginning of the second great leapfrog story,” says Needham, who estimates that 1.6 billion people in the world don’t have access to electricity.
In Europe, competition from the growing renewables sector is forcing traditional utilities to become greener.
Dinosaur of the Year
Two years ago, environmentalist group Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union dubbed Chief Executive Officer Juergen Grossmann of RWE AG (RWE), Germany’s second-largest utility, dinosaur of the year for his role in helping to persuade the government to extend the lifetimes of the country’s nuclear reactors.
In February, RWE invited reporters to Essen, the heart of Germany’s coal and steel industry, to tout the 22 billion-euro ($29 billion) company’s expansion into renewable energy and smart grids.
RWE created an online store selling energy-efficient appliances and this year will install 100,000 smart electricity meters in Muelheim an der Ruhr, once a Ruhr Valley center of coal mining and steelmaking.
“The new-energy transformation is greener, more decentralized,” Bernd Widera of RWE’s power distribution unit said during the 2012 E-world conference in Essen.
The most-advanced technologies and policies are being road- tested in Germany. In Feldheim, a village of 43 homes near Berlin, Michael Knape strides across the soccer pitch.
As the area’s mayor, he’s showing a group of visitors from China, Japan and the U.S. the field’s brand-new floodlights, financed by levies on the local wind farm and powered by a mix of wind and biogas generators.
The lights are hooked up to a 450,000-euro local grid that in October 2010 made Feldheim the first German municipality to run entirely on its own renewables-fueled generators.
“Here you can see what the future could look like,” Knape tells the group. “The people aren’t green idealists. They are on board because the electricity is cheaper.”
Local families pay 17 euro cents per kilowatt-hour for power, 31 percent less than what EON AG, Germany’s biggest utility, charges the residents of neighboring Niemegk for electricity. Feldheim’s prices, set by the cooperative that owns the local power grid, are guaranteed for 10 years.
Feldheim’s households put down about 3,000 euros each to help pay for the village heating system. Half of the 1.7 million-euro cost was covered by a grant from the European Regional Development Fund. The remainder was financed with a bank loan paid back through heating bills.
Germany is now the world’s biggest renewable power producer, with 53.8 gigawatts of wind and solar generators.
“The people in Germany have taken matters into their own hands and overhauled the energy mix despite vicious resistance from the big utilities,” architect Rolf Disch says.
Disch is an iconic figure in the world of energy innovation.
His home in Freiburg, southern Germany, which he built in 1994 and still lives in, was the first in the world to produce more energy than it consumes, he says. Disch built a tract of 59 energy-producing homes in the town.
Wolfgang Schnuerer, a retired elementary school principal, bought a “plus energy” house in Freiburg in 2004, paying about 15 percent more than the cost of a similar property with a traditional power supply.
‘The Great Transformation’
Through a south-facing, triple-insulated glass facade, sunlight pours into the house, which is heated, when needed, by a local biomass cogeneration plant.
His heating bill, in a town where winter temperatures drop to as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), was just 144.64 euros or all of 2011 -- 96 percent less than what he had paid at his previous home.
Schnuerer, 75, an asthma sufferer, says he stopped taking cortisone four months after moving into the house because its filtration system ventilates the air every 90 seconds, which has alleviated his respiratory condition.
“I call it our feel-good house,” he says. “We’re saving carbon emissions and making money with it.”
The feel-good factor will spread, says Mahesh Bhave, who teaches business strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode in Kerala.
‘Things Will Be Different’
“As renewable energy prices drop, every household and business has the incentive to become a stand-alone power plant,” he says. “This is the great transformation of our time.”
For Anand, solar-powered electricity is a pathway to prosperity: It allows him to work a few extra hours each day on chores, such as shelling betel nuts, that need to be done in the light. Local children can boost their chances of one day getting a better-paying job by extending their study time.
Other villagers are catching on. His neighbor Chandra, who also uses only one name, 42, has bought the same solar system as Anand’s, and six other families are awaiting installation.
Looking across the rice paddies, Anand takes in Halliberu’s 60 homes.
“Come back in a couple years and everyone will have one,” Anand says. “Things will be different.”