Powering the Next Generation

By Keri Tesch, Santa Clara University, Accounting, 2017

Global Social Benefit Fellow Erika Francks interviewing rural farmers in India.

Global Social Benefit Fellow Erika Francks interviewing rural farmers in India.

“A few things I’m grateful for: my team, air conditioning, Uber, bug bites that don’t itch, and hotels that have hot water” – Erika Francks.

Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is committed to fighting global poverty to create a more just world. The center works towards this mission by supporting social enterprises around the world, through programs like the Global Social Benefit Fellowship. The Fellowship selects Santa Clara University students to work in a nine-month action research project for social enterprises in Miller Center’s network. In 2016 there were eighteen fellows working on eight projects around the world.

Three of the fellows, Erika Francks, Nate Bradford and Carson Whisler, worked with ONergy, a for-profit social enterprise that offers affordable solar solutions to those without access to clean energy in India. The rural communities served by ONergy do not have access to a power grid, which leads to numerous hardships in citizens’ lives. ONergy brings many solar solutions to these communities, such as solar panels for schools, solar water pumps, and solar microgrids. With these solutions, residents no longer need to worry about lacking light at night, or lacking water for crops.

Erika Francks, Carson Whisler and Nate Bradford with ONergy customers.

Erika Francks, Carson Whisler and Nate Bradford with ONergy customers.

In their project, the fellows conducted 47 semi-structured interviews on camera. They talked to ONergy customers, partners, and employees in cities and villages throughout the rural Indian regions of West Bengal and Odisha. Their interviews observed the impact of ONergy’s products on customers’ lives and the business model that allows ONergy to reach its last-mile customers. Erika, Nate and Carson worked with customers in their homelands for seven weeks and received eye-opening, first-hand experience in what it means to live without a reliable source of power. They saw that access to solar solutions offers families the ability to provide for their rural communities, have safer and more comfortable homes, and gain an education for new generations.

Farmers in Narandi with a solar powered water pump on their farm.

Farmers in Narandi with a solar powered water pump on their farm.

Solar Irrigation in Narandi

Farming is the only source of income for 20 families living in the village of Narandi, in West Bengal, India. Before solar powered irrigation, the families relied upon diesel pumps to water their crops. These pumps were not only unreliable, they were also costly for families who struggled to make ends meet and who were at the mercy of the weather, particularly rain, as farmers. ONergy helped the community install solar powered irrigation pumps as a better solution for the Narandi farmers.

After installation, the cost of irrigation was cut in half and it utilized a resource that was plentiful in the region: the sun. This energy source offered the one steady form of energy for the families in Narandi. Utilizing the sun as the energy source to water their crops made the process cheaper and more reliable.

Erika, Nate, and Carson interviewed several farmers that were able to use the solar irrigation system. The farmers showed a deep appreciation for the new technology and the extra money saved allowed them to expand their crop offerings, feed their families, and send their children to school. The payoff from a simple conversion of energy paid dividends to the families reached. The solar pumps give a steady source of power to pump water for crops, which in turn provides a steadier source of income for the farmers.

Residents in Sergarh stand behind a solar microgrid that provides power to the village.

Residents in Sergarh stand behind a solar microgrid that provides power to the village.

Solar Microgrids in Sergarh

A microgrid is a small network of those using power or electricity from a local source of power supply. The microgrid can function independently, or be connected to a larger power grid. The solar microgrids installed in Sergarh, Odisha, provide a local source of power from the sun for community residents. Prior to this installation, the 40 residents in the village would farm during the day and then at night come home to dark homes. Light was formerly very dim when provided by kerosene lamps. Dark smoke from the lamps lingered in the home, even long after the lamps would be put out for the night. The dim lighting also strained children’s eyes when trying to study. A lack of light posed danger to villagers as poisonous snakes and scorpions would come in during the night.

Like in Sergarh, the solar microgrids installed offer a way for communities to have access to electricity and power for the late hours in the evening.

Erika, Nate and Carson found that when given the opportunity, villagers were willing to pay more of their savings upfront for a reliable solar microgrid versus the former unreliable power grids. They found that villagers are instilled with a sense of pride in their access to light for cooking and studying at night. Positive change was exemplified through the village’s new study session, offered because of the light that is now available. Villagers can also stay safe from the dangerous animals that are now more visible at night. More light means a higher quality of life for rural populations in India.

 School children with the newly installed rooftop solar panels at Khardah Sibnath High School.

 School children with the newly installed rooftop solar panels at Khardah Sibnath High School.

Solar Rooftops for Schools

In developed nations it can be easy for students to take for granted air-conditioned classrooms, healthy school lunches, computers in the lab, and sports programs that are offered after school. For the 800 children attending Khardah Sibnath High School just north of Kolkata, this was not a reality, but with new solar panels, amenities like this are more achievable and the benefits are demonstrable. The solar panels have cut the school’s electricity bill in half and the extra money can be spent to provide fans and computers in the classroom, more protein can be added to student’s lunches, and they are able to start sports programs. The newfound financial resources from the solar installation have improved students’ lives and learning opportunities. Environmental conditions have improved due to ONergy’s solar solution and there is the possibility of future expansion of the system to further reduce electrical expenses, and to provide even more opportunities for students at Khardah Sibnath High School. 

The students and administration alike expressed their excitement of the new resources to the fellows. One of the students attending the high school was thrilled at the idea that students were “no longer living in the dark.”

Ashish Kumar Roy, the principal of the high school, also shared his excitement with the fellows. He spoke of the pride he felt for his school and the hope he has for India’s future because of renewable energy. He hopes to continue expanding his school’s solar system, exclaiming “we want more! We have 5 kW now generating. We want 25 or 30 kW.”

While the school started small, the money they are now saving can be put towards an expansion of the solar system for even greater benefits to come.

Erika filming during interviews.

Erika filming during interviews.

Final Fellowship Thoughts

The Fellowship offered by Miller Center gives undergraduate students the opportunity to learn within communities that are gaining access to new innovations like those offering clean solar energy in India. The Fellowship offers more than just a simple study abroad experience; it offers deep immersion and direct experience working with populations that are commonly underserved. The fellows’ work supports enterprises like ONergy, to help the companies assess their impact and effectively touch more lives.