Lighting the Path: Gyanesh Pandey's Rural Mission with Husk Power

Today, nearly 800 million people in the world lack access to electricity with the majority of those people located in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, these areas are disproportionately affected by energy poverty, leading to millions suffering from indoor air pollution caused by traditional fuel use. In the face of these challenges, Gyanesh Pandey, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, has undertaken a mission to uplift the lives of those living in the shadows of energy poverty.

(Next billion)

Gyanesh was born in Tamkuha in Bihar, a village without electricity. His early experiences witnessing the struggles of those without electricity sparked a passion that ultimately brought him to the forefront of rural electrification. Despite earning a master's degree in electrical engineering, Gyanesh could have chosen a conventional urban career. However, he chose to return to his roots and create a meaningful impact.

The Birth of the Husk Power Systems

As a kid, Ganyesh Pandey just wanted to get away from India. But as he grew up, he realised that there was no getting away and he began to find ways to contribute to rural development. Over the next few years, he collaborated with his childhood friends Ratnesh Yadav and Manoj Sinha and decided to do something on energy. 

At first, they considered using solar power, but in 2007, the cost of the equipment was very high, making it an impractical option. They needed to use what was cheap and readily available. Bihar, where the venture was based, had an abundance of agricultural residue left from rice cultivation. They began experimenting with gasifiers—devices that heat biomass to produce biogas, a fuel for generating electricity. While gasifiers had been used in India, particularly in Karnataka since 1988, most were designed for wood which required cutting trees. Pandey and his team wanted a more practical option and invested time in adapting gasifiers to operate on rice husks. They also created a new cooling system, crucial for handling the hot biogas generated by gasifier.

Usually, cooling involves passing the hot biogas through water, but this method led to water contamination with pollutants from gasification. To address this, the partners innovated and patented a unique "dry gasification" process, utilizing a heat exchange system to cool the gas without water contact, preventing environmental contamination.

In 2007, they set up their first plant in Tamkuha village
through their NGO, Samta Samriddhi Foundation, created for this purpose.

In 2008, they established their company Husk Power Systems to run their power plants. They constructed mini-power plants for villages. The process involved utilizing 50 kilograms of rice husks per hour to generate 32 kilowatts of power, sufficient for around 500 village households. And as solar technology became more affordable, the partners transitioned their grids into hybrid power systems in 2015. These systems operated on sunlight during the day and seamlessly switched to husks at night. Presently, Husk Power Systems functions in approximately 70 to 80 locations, providing uninterrupted power 24/7.

Impact on the society

As opposed to other solar home systems that offer basic services like lighting and phone charging, Husk Power focuses on the entire rural economy with mini-grids as the central aspect of its business model. The company caters to completely rural off-grid areas, where traditional diesel generators were previously the only option for powering businesses and livelihoods. Additionally, it extends its services to weak grid areas, where the main electricity grid provides unreliable or poor-quality connections. The company has integrated the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning into its infrastructure, enabling automated operations and effective demand forecasting.

Every microgrid links numerous customers, including micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs),  households, and institutions like schools and health clinics. With access to electricity, village life can extend beyond daytime, enabling shops to remain open later, thereby boosting revenue. Students also benefit by being able to study into the night. Additionally, each power plant generates local employment opportunities and supports the local economy by employing residents as technicians, salespeople and for plant security.

The Harvard Business School did a case study on Husk Power Systems and it was found that from 2007 to 2013, the company built 80 biomass waste plants, providing electricity to 250,000 villagers across 350 villages.

In 2022, Husk Power Systems signed an
Energy Compact with the United Nations, setting a target to build 5,000 mini-grids and connect at least 1 million customers by 2030.

Husk Power Systems doesn't just stop at electricity; it also provides financing for energy-efficient appliances and installing turnkey rooftop solar systems for rural commercial and industrial customers. They aim to uplift communities by creating local jobs, promoting entrepreneurship, and supporting education through initiatives like the Samta Samriddhi Foundation. The company's pay-as-you-go model, facilitated by the Huskify app, enables digital payment and real-time energy usage monitoring for customers.

Awards and recognition

In 2009,
Husk Power Systems won the DFJ and Cisco Global Business Plan Competition. The following year, it received recognition from The Tech Museum of Innovation for using technology for the betterment of humanity. In 2011, the company secured the International Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy and the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) Award for its operations in Tanzania.

Gyanesh Pandey, the co-founder, was also honoured with the
2011 Real Heroes Award. In 2021, Husk Power was recognized in the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report as the first mini-grid company to achieve significant scale, surpassing 100 solar hybrid community mini-grids and serving over 5,000 small business customers.

As of 2022, Husk Power Systems has established nearly 150 renewable energy mini-grids in India, situated in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. During the day, energy is supplied to customers via solar PV while biomass contributes up to eight hours of power primarily in the evening. And battery power is used for the night-time. The company has plans for expansion into additional Indian states and other regions in Southeast Asia and Africa. It has already expanded its operations in Tanzania. 

In September 2023, at the Africa Climate Summit, the company introduced the 'Africa Sunshot' initiative. The goal is to install 2,500 solar mini-grids within five years, aiming to boost low-carbon economic growth in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gyanesh Pandey's story is not just about providing electricity; it's about liberating rural India from darkness, as Husk Power Systems continues to illuminate lives and create pathways to a sustainable and equitable future. Pandey says their mission is to “liberate rural India from darkness,” and his journey stands as a testament to the transformative power of visionary leadership and the enduring impact of bringing light to those who have lived in the shadows for too long.

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