Note: this is a guest post by Nikhil Jaisinghani, a co-founder of Mera Gao Power, on our Science Advances impact evaluation. Read the study here: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/5/e1602153.

I want to thank Dr. Urpelainen for all allowing me to post my thoughts on his blog. I have followed his team’s study for a number of years as the survey was planned, executed, and analyzed. The data is credible and well analyzed in the study, but I am concerned about how many readers may interpret (and a few publications already have interpreted) the results.

The study wasn’t a comparison between the 24 hour unlimited electricity that the grid promises and focused electricity services such as what MGP provides. Yet many of the newspaper and magazine headlines imply that the study did exactly that. In order to provide some level of comparison, I’d like to take a crack at highlighting what social benefits have and have not been found to be impacted by electrification. For those interested in reading more, I suggest three papers which review a breadth of data and reports on the subject:

  1. The Impact of Small Scale Electricity Systems”, The World Resources Institute
  2. The Evidence of Benefits for Poor People of Increased Renewable Energy Capacity: Literature Review”, Institute of Developed Studies
  3. Welfare Impact of Rural Electrification”, The World Bank’s Internal Evaluation Group

But in case you don’t have time to read a hundred pages of reports, let me summarize some of the themes. First, the income benefits of electrification are disproportionately enjoyed by richer households, the offered explanation being that poorer households such as the ones MGP serves cannot afford the larger appliances that use the larger power loads and instead simply use electric lighting. A second commonality across studies is that when rural communities are electrified, the poorer communities almost exclusively benefit through improved lighting. Third, electrification has not been found to spur new enterprise creation in the short term. New businesses take many years to spring up in any significant number and are more reliant on roads and customers than they are on power. Of course there are always outlier studies. I’m sure if I searched, I would find one study that links ice cream consumption with cognitive ability. That’s why macro studies are important; they pull the findings from a large number of studies to identify what findings are consistent (I’m pretty sure there aren’t multiple studies linking ice cream to cognitive ability, as much as I wish it were true).

Education, measured in the number of hours children spend studying and how many years children spend in school, was in fact the most commonly found benefit of electrification. That benefit is the outcome of electric lighting that enables students to study longer and better each night. It is important to note, however, that studying is a choice and the child and the parents must choose studying over socializing and playing. Previous studies have not found children who choose not to study with kerosene to be more likely to study with electric lighting, whether it be MGP, the grid, a solar lantern, or other. The common finding has been that those children who do choose to study – with or without electric lighting – study longer with electric lighting. Though Dr. Urpelainen’s study did not measure that variable, we did our own randomized control trial in 2012 and made our best attempt at measuring it. We aren’t survey experts or econometricians, but we did find a dramatic increase in the number of hours those children spent studying (as an aside, that RCT found consistent results as Dr. Urpelainen on enterprise creation and income).

It was because of this global evidence, coupled with my own experience living in a poor, remote off-grid village, that we created MGP with the intention of offering the electricity services that poor communities benefit from at a price that would allow them access. But actually doing that – delivering great service to customers – is actually pretty complicated (for those of you who think our jobs are easy, I invite you to come help us out). The data from this survey implies MGP was not delivering on its promise to provide 7 hours of service per night. When Dr. Aklin described the service provided as “paltry”, it initially caused me to bristle. But when I looked at the data, I realized he was right; customers responded that they were only getting 1 to 2 hours of service per night. In 2014 when this survey was conducted, we were a young company still solving many problems. Our batteries were stored in wooden cabinets in a customer’s house– we were testing an assumption that communities would protect the assets in order to maximize service. What we found was that these cabinets would often be broken into by people (not always customers) connecting additional devices directly to our battery banks. Customers also found ways of charging batteries from our system (there was a marked increase in battery ownership over the survey period, possibly because customers could now charge them in their homes). These uses were not what our micro grids were designed for, of course. Further, our construction teams would build micro grids quickly, and we had no quality control processes to ensure the micro grids were built properly. The 1 to 2 hours customers reported receiving may have been the consequence of us being at the beginning of a sharp learning curve. Since then, we have taken significant steps to better secure our equipment, control power theft, and improve our construction quality. With these improvements in place, we tested the performance of our micro grids in 2015 and measured our service delivery to customers through the foggy winter season. We found that with these improvements, we are now able to provide the promised service to customers. And the value our customers are receiving is therefore significantly greater now than it was a few years back.

There are many fair conclusions here, including the importance of quality service delivery, that electrification is not a silver bullet to end poverty, and that in addition to electrification other investments are required to help those customers in the bottom few quintiles to prosper. But one conclusion that is not justified is that the focused electricity services that we provide to customers are significantly less valuable or impactful than grid electricity.

Our customers value our service, and the lighting we aim to provide our customers is life changing; not only has the importance of lighting to poor households already been established, but we see if first hand. There are hundreds of millions of people in India still reliant on kerosene for household lighting; over a hundred million children studying by kerosene. These people cannot affordably be served by the grid. Dr. Urpelainen’s earlier publications have shown how few people are connected to the grid even when they live in grid connected villages. These people shouldn’t be left out, especially since we have an affordable option for them. Don’t dismiss us just yet; hang in there with us, be open to learning with us, and don’t be too quick to rush to conclusions. It is a long journey, and we are working hard and against great odds to make a difference. We are optimists by nature and are optimistic about what we can achieve. But we can’t do it in a world that doesn’t believe that this work is important.

Solar Power provided by Mera Gao in UP, IndiaMera Gao Power lighting in rural India.

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