12/19/2014 09:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Energy Access Entrepreneur's Response to Bill Gates: Lead or Get Out of the Way


During all the planning, pontificating, number crunching and debating going on this year, it's apparent to me that folks in the energy access world are missing a very simple point: families need clean, safe energy today.

I have spent the better part of a decade on the ground providing energy products and services to last mile villages in India. I've lived, worked and understood my customers' needs, aspirations and most grave challenges. It makes me profoundly happy that this issue finally found resonance in global debates that include the likes of Bill Gates- but I need to set a few things straight.

Centralized generation in the best case scenario will take decades to provide power to those without it. Meanwhile, the rural villages forced to wait in the dark have given up the hope that those wires will ever reach them. Decentralized generation like retail solar power, provides a light in the darkness today.

Around the world there are 1.3 billion people with no wires or electricity at all. These are the un-electrified. What most don't realize is that there's another ~1.2 billion who have access to poles and wires but little or no juice. Those are the under-electrified. All said and done about 1/3 of humanity lacks adequate power from a grid that many believe is the ultimate solution to energy poverty.

For those without wires at all kerosene is a staple of daily life. Since we who write, research and debate like numbers, here is a reminder of what no access to energy looked like this year:

• Kerosene lighting and cooking contributed to the ~4.3 million people who died this year from indoor air pollution. Exponentially more struggled with chronic illness, concentrated in children and the elderly.
• Burning kerosene for light contributed to indoor air pollution that killed more people than malaria.
• Over 190 million tons of CO2 emissions went into the air this year due to all fuel-based lighting in houses without electricity (Mills 2005).
• Families in rural Africa spent about 15% of household income on lighting alone. Families in the UK spent less than 2% of income on electricity for all household uses.
• In India, 2.5 million people suffered severe burns this year due to overturned kerosene lamps. This figure is projected to be low due to under reporting.

I don't, nor does anybody else need to be a university professor or a think tank writer to conclude that the lack of clean, safe energy is literally killing people, robbing children of education and families from moving out of poverty.

But that is a fundamental point that many of the 'central generation' analysts seem to miss. Catherine Wolfram from the Energy Institute at Haas takes a traditionally academic stance suggesting we should take our time, collect more data and then see what is best in terms of energy access and climate considerations for developing countries; a luxurious position given where she physically sits - in a beautiful university well-endowed with electricity.

Out on the fringe is Alex Trembath of Breakthrough Institute, who advocates for throwing the baby out with the bathwater in his contradictory stances of yes to clean energy, but no to immediate solutions that provide clean and safe energy to 1.3 billion people today, albeit at introductory levels. Simply put their approach seems to be - do what we've always done and hope that this time more poor people actually get power from the grid.

When you spend all of your time on the ground, you learn that this approach is broken. We all want power in the hands of people today, not decades from now. That's why we advocate for distributed energy solutions - they are the fastest, cheapest, most direct way to get people on the energy ladder today. This is how we start putting a dent in this problem.

Of course, we all want to see the services a central grid provides reach the last mile and supply cheap, serviced based power to the developing world. We want to see a TV, a refrigerator, a water filter and other quality of life goods in the homes of people in rural communities. We agree with, and advocate for a plan that gets power to those homes in a reliable, cleaner and safer way for the planet; and believe it or not we start with a pragmatic approach that is open to a central or decentralized solution.

But here's where we depart with Mr Trembath, Ms. Wolfram, and Mr Gates - we are realists who know and live the ground realities; we take action when we see that the ideal will take time, cost lives and billions of dollars in potential earnings. Simply put, retail distributed solar solutions such as small lanterns and Pico home systems are the best overnight solution to move a village family in any geography out of the dangers of kerosene and with the flick of a switch, into upward mobility.

None of us entrepreneurs sit and think about this issue from Haas Business School, the East Bay or Washington, D.C. I think that's why we have a very different view from many of those engaged in this debate. It's in this spirit, I would like to invite Mr. Trembath, Ms. Wolfram and Mr. Gates to India with me to sit for a week in a kerosene-lit hut in a rural village with a few of the 1.3 billion people that don't have grid power. I want them to feel the urgency with which I work. I want them to hear from the elders who have been promised grid power for decades only to be continually passed over.

I want Mr. Trembath to tell these people he thinks it's best for them to keep waiting for the grid because he thinks a retail product that provides small, but life-changing power is beneath them. I want Ms. Wolfram to tell one of the hundreds of millions of mothers who live in darkness that she should wait for a clean grid-based solution to come after say, 10-20 years while she continues to study the issue more closely and advise the policy makers and bankers. Mr. Trembath, Ms. Wolfram and Mr. Gates can watch as children strain to study at night, ultimately closing the books in frustration. They can see how the woman's husband struggles to pay the bills because he can't work after sunset. Most heartbreaking, they can see as a child gets burned from a toppled kerosene lamp like millions of other children all over the world have this year.

My industry's goal is not to do battle with the top down solutions so beloved by Trembath or Wolfram - it's to end energy poverty. That is what motivates me, and it's why I support a balanced energy access solution that is a combination of distributed near-term solutions and long-term central grids where it makes economic sense. But those grids are not coming any time soon.

In the meantime, my industry drew over $64 million in investment this year alone - investments that are curbing the scourge of kerosene and improving lives today. So my message is simple - if you really care about ending energy poverty stop denigrating my industry from an arm chair. If you truly want families all over the developing world to live in dignity and safety of clean energy, then lead or get out of the way.