Farmers confound public utilities in India – traditional villages in Germany do the same – so can we!

A home in Halliberu – solar panel on the roof

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…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…

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…

The revolution is just beginning, says Jeremy Rifkin, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Third Industrial Revolution…

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…

And yet…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…

“What we’re seeing is the beginning of the second great leapfrog story,” says Paul Needham, who estimates that 1.6 billion people in the world don’t have access to electricity.

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. Why not the United States?

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…

“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…

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…

“As renewable energy prices drop, every household and business has the incentive to become a stand-alone power plant,” Mahesh Bhave 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.”

The cooperative rental model is superlative. Personally, I think Americans are so unused to cooperating with each other, so fully immersed in a culture of self-satisfaction and individualism, the cooperative model isn’t likely.

But, the lease-purchase, rent-to-own mechanism is a way for someone like me or my neighbors to step past the sticker shock of installing solar panels and wind-power. Right now, it would take a minimum of $20,000 or more to take our home off the grid. Though I have a good enough credit rating to float the paper, I’m still reluctant to do it if for no other reason than that I’m an old fart. I might not see the project through to its end.

But, something properly established, ready to buy into as easily – comparing cultures and requirements – as it has been for Anand or the residents of Feldheim would take me about 5 minutes to get on board. The time to fill out the paperwork.

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