Smart Power India: Economic Development Without Dirty Fuels

04/22/2015 11:27 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

When Earth Day was first established 45 years ago, a negligible amount of the world's electricity was generated by renewable energy sources. Today, it's more than 22 percent, and it's growing at a faster rate than any time since. This is undoubtedly a good thing for our planet--although more progress is needed to get the world off of our reliance on dirty fuels. But it's an equally positive force for economic development in places where people are still living without--or with very little--access to electricity.

For example, in India, more than 300 million are currently living in energy poverty, mostly in rural villages where the national grid does not yet reach. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have a strong commitment to bringing "24/7" power to all. But while the government works to expand access to the grid, the growth of renewables--including solar, wind, and biomass--has opened up new frontiers of decentralized energy models to bring electricity to households and business enterprises now.

Not only are these models healthier and safer alternatives to dirty diesel fuels or dangerous kerosene lamps, but they can connect to and strengthen the national grid later. But most importantly, these technologies can help unleash economic opportunities enabling India's poorest people to escape the cycle of poverty, increasing household incomes as much as 39 percent in some cases. As a report from The Climate Group shows, these solutions "have much broader social, environmental, and economic impacts" than solutions that only provide for lighting.

For the last three years, The Rockefeller Foundation has been focused on developing a model of decentralized renewable energy that is commercially viable while also able to address the problems of poverty. Here's how it works: Under the Smart Power model, an anchor tenant, such as a telecom company operating local cell towers, can serve as the base demand for power, making it profitable for energy-services companies (ESCOs) to build clean energy plants, including wind, solar, and biomass, large enough to serve both lighting and productive energy loads for business use. With this structure in place, ESCOs are able to sell electricity to households and local businesses in rural communities, meeting various needs for power from carpenters, farmers, health care workers, and others--benefiting these communities well into the future.

We have spent three years piloting this model. We have seen farmers able to irrigate their fields in the half the time, with great cost savings. We have seen bakers able to increase their inventory because they are now able to power larger freezers for more hours, or photographers able to expand their businesses. We have seen children studying longer and women feeling safer.

Last week, I was thrilled to stand with the Minister of Power in India to announce Smart Power India, Rockefeller's $75 million commitment to scale this model quickly to electrify 1,000 villages in two of India's poorest states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. By proving the model in 1,000 villages, tens of thousands aren't far behind. In fact, we think it could help to accelerate access to power to the 1.3 billion people who live without it around the world.

Achieving these significant social and economic advances through clean energy solutions shows that the use of dirty fuels is not essential for economic development. And three Earth Days from now we believe there will be 1,000 villages in India proving that renewable energy is not only good for the planet, but a powerful tool to lift people out of poverty.