Giving Back

Manoj Sinha's dream of providing power to areas of his native India where limited or no electricity is available has become a reality. He and his partners started Husk Power Systems to develop a process to convert rice husks into electricity to supply impoverished rural Indian villages.
By Bryan Sims
When Manoj Sinha arrived in the United States from his native Bihar, India, village five years ago he had a plan. First, he wanted to further his college education in America, as that would have been difficult to do from the impoverished Indian village where he spent the majority of his childhood and adolescent years.

After earning an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering at one of India's Institute for Advanced Technology schools, Sinha received a master's degree in electric and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He then went to work at several electronics companies making microprocessor chips. One of those companies was Intel Corp. where he currently holds 10 patents.

While attending Umass Amherst, Sinha rekindled a friendship with Gyanesh Pandey, whom he had known since 1995, as both grew up in Bihar. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, Pandey moved to Los Angeles to pursue a job. The two kept in touch and eventually came to the conclusion that they needed to devise a way to deliver affordable electricity to impoverished villages in India that desperately need it. "Our relatives still don't have electricity there," Sinha says. "We started talking about how we can give back to the community where we grew up since we clearly knew that there is a tremendous need because most of the people there are extremely poor."

Because they understood the situation in poor Indian communities, the first ideas that came to mind involved solar and wind power. Both technologies could easily convert the husks from the 100 million tons of rice harvested each year into a producer gas. That gas could eventually be turned into clean, readily available electricity for rural villagers. In 2006, during the heat of their brainstorming, Pandey left the United States and went back to India where he spent nine months researching technologies that would best suit that country. In the meantime, Sinha stayed in the United States.

Although the solar and wind technologies sounded good at the time, the two eventually decided on a different approach. In the spring of 2007, Sinha and Pandey began collaborating with several gasification manufacturing companies and even talked to an Indian diesel generator maker about tweaking their generators so that they could run on producer gas, or syngas. Sinha says they decided to refine the generator concept and raise money to donate rice husk generators to two or three villages near where they grew up.
In the summer of 2007, using their own money, they installed two "mini power plants" in Bihar to provide 35 to 50 kilowatts of off-grid power. The electricity was offered to villagers as a pay-for-use service. Each unit can process about 110 pounds of rice husks per hour and supply electricity to about 300 to 500 rural Indian households. The generators would operate eight to 10 hours per day. The generators would also offset about 200 tons of carbon emissions per village, per year in India.

"The reason we started looking at rice and rice husks was because the villages within the Bihar area have an abundance of rice production, growing about 500 tons per annum," Sinha says. About 5 percent of the rice husks are burned for cooking purposes and the rest is just burned or left in the field to rot, he says.

A Foundation for Expansion
In September 2007, Sinha attended the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia to pursue a master's degree in business. While there, he met Charles "Chip" Ransler. Sinha, Ransler and Pandey formed Husk Power Systems to provide power to some 350 million rural villages in eastern India's "Rice Belt" where the villagers are "rice rich and power poor", according to Sinha.

"The way [Pandey] and I were thinking about it initially, was just to do maybe two or three [processor units] with the money we made in the U.S. and give back to our community [in India] and be happy with it," Sinha says. "But, when I went to school at Darden I talked to Chip and then we figured out that it actually could be initiated as a business; as it can be profitable and it can be expanded."

India has been particularly fertile ground for experimentation with renewable energy initiatives. The latest edition of Ernst & Young's renewable energy country attractiveness indices ranks India as the third most attractive market for renewable energy investment. "India's rise to third overall has been precipitated by excellent national and regional government support for both foreign and local investment in renewable technologies. Consequently, rapid growth is expected to continue in this market," the report states.

The report further notes that "installed renewables capacity in India-currently standing at 8GW (gigawatts)-is now expected to double every five years, and is forecast to reach 20 gigawatts by 2012, twice the government's target."

India is the world's sixth-largest energy consumer, using about 3 percent of the world's total energy per year. With a population of more than 1 billion people, it is the second most populous country in the world behind China.

So, what can we expect in the future from Husk Power Systems? Currently, there are four rice husk processing units installed in India. According to Ransler, Husk Power Systems intends to install 15 to 20 more units in villages this year and the company plans on installing 100 in 2009 and 2,500 by 2013. The lack of reliable electricity is one of the biggest obstacles to small business growth in rural India, so providing villages with rice-husk power can enable dozens of other small business ventures, Ransler explains.

Taking on Challenges
Although Sinha and Pandey were able to self-fund much of their business, Husk Power Systems must amass significantly more capital to expand its business. "We have gotten requests from different regions in India to expand [our business]," Sinha says. "We're not limited by customer demand. We are mostly limited by the funds we have. Once we get sufficient funds, we will be able to expand very quickly."

To showcase their business to American academia, Ransler and Sinha entered several prestigious college-level business competitions this year. In April, the two picked up a $10,000 check for winning Darden's annual business plan competition, and they were selected as one of 10 finalist teams among 245 entries from 23 countries in the Global Social Venture Competition hosted by the University of California, Berkeley. In May, Husk Power Systems won second prize at the 2008 Ignite Clean Energy competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Ransler and Sinha competed for the $125,000 grand prize. Later that month, they took home $50,000 in prize money after topping the prestigious Social Innovation Competition at the University of Texas.

According to Ransler, with more research and feedback from the competitions, the team learned that the silica byproduct produced by burning the rice husks could be converted into a valuable ingredient for cement production. "We've actually spoken with a number of U.S. companies that are doing business in India, to be able to provide that to them," Ransler says. "Some of those things are already shored up, but we hope to get the rest of the supply chain aspects down these next few months."

In addition to power generation and the silica byproduct produced by burning the rice husks, the processing units could potentially be paid for by reducing carbon emissions through a trading program established by the Kyoto Protocol. "One of the big steps is getting certified, and we've already started that so we're ahead of the game there," he says. "It probably doesn't make much sense until we're in more villages, but we hope to have that done by the end of next year." With conservative electricity consumption, revenue from
the three sources-electricity generation, silica and carbon credits-each rice husk generator could be paid for in about two and a half years, Ransler says.

Finding funds hasn't been the only challenge the entrepreneurs have faced. They have had to address logistical issues, such as how to get the electricity to its various destinations, irrigation and water purification issues and competing with other local business to name a few. "It's tough doing this in India because it's a completely different ballgame with regard to laws, restrictions and the politics associated with it," Ransler says. "It's definitely intimidating, but we're figuring it out."

Previous electrification projects in India have generally provided villages with intermittent power-often only an hour per day. The power comes from distant coal-fired power plants and travels through miles of wire to reach small villages, where average personal incomes are less than $20 per month. In many cases, Indian villagers would illegally tap into the main power lines for free electricity, which is often referred to as defaulting, and sometimes large sections of power lines have been cut and sold as scrap metal.

Husk Power Systems has developed a strategy to circumvent those kinds of problems by requiring pre-payment for all electricity sold and using double-insulated wire that is more difficult to tap into than standard wire.

The company has also tried to be a low-cost electricity supplier. Instead of paying $10 to $15 for an electrical meter for every household, Husk Power Systems uses a $1 circuit breaker to distribute electricity to a branch line serving four or five households. The company also uses locally-based employees to operate and maintain the rice husk processing units, Sinha says.

"It takes a lot of convincing to change the mindset and charge them money for the services they are getting from us," he says. "It's not their fault. Politicians use the electricity for things to their advantage there. The only thing is they don't get it. Even if there is a public grid, the power would only be available for a few hours every week, let alone every day."
As for Sinha, supplying his homeland with affordable electricity far outweighs the profits the company will reap.

"This was completely humanitarian," Sinha stresses. "[The creation of Husk Power Systems] had nothing to do with profit at the time. But, when we started we figured that actually many people need the same kind of services and we cannot do that all across India with limited funds so the only way we could accomplish that is to reap a profit."

Bryan Sims is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 738-4950.