Greenlight Planet: Bringing Light Into India’s Darkest Homes

Dhaval Radia, Global Business Leader (EasyBuy), Greenlight Planet, reveals to Clean Future how his company has embarked on a mission to provide clean and affordable energy solutions to the remotest, off-grid villages in India with the help of their innovative range of portable solar products.

Give us a brief profile of Greenlight Planet Inc, its core objectives and presence in India?

We began operations in India in 2008 with an objective to provide clean and affordable energy solutions using innovation and technology for those without reliable access to electricity.

Approx 350-400 million Indian households still rely on primitive energy solutions like kerosene lamps and candles. The challenges we saw were around distribution (reaching these masses), affordability (making it an easy purchase) and awareness of clean energy products.

We started with a intent to reach out to this population with basic lighting and cell-phone charging products that suffices their daily needs more efficiently.

What is your assessment of the current market scenario for off-grid solar solutions in India today?

In terms of scale, it is a massive market encompassing roughly 350 million potential consumers in India and over 1.2 billion across the world (nearly 1/5th of the world population) and growing. Specifically for India, the market has evolved rapidly over the last decade in several key areas that were most challenging for growth and scalability of operations.

One, there is a lot more consumer awareness & acceptability for solar offerings of different kinds and quality. Two, with multiple options available the consumer demands are evolving to demand bigger and better systems with the convenience of easy financing solutions.

Three, there are some noteworthy contributions from micro finance institutions, rural banks and solar solution providers in addition to the government to increase the awareness of alternative energy as well as drive commercially viable business models to reach the off-grid population in several energy deficit parts of the country.

What according to you are the main challenges posed by the domestic solar market? What has been your strategy to overcome them?

The 3 major challenges we encountered in the domestic markets so far were (a) the last mile distribution, (b) creating a trustworthy brand name and (c) availability of financing options to incubate, localize and grow this business for all concerned.

Firstly, in order to overcome the challenge of last mile distribution, we have partnered with over 200 institutions in India, including micro-finance institutions, rural banks, post offices, agro-based companies, solar products distributors and retailers.

Secondly, creating a trustworthy & reliable brand name is a strategic imperative for us. We invest a significant time and investments in innovation, design and technology to ensure we stay ahead in the industry on key parameters.

Thirdly, the challenge of having access to finance for incubating and growing this business is still a significant one. The options available have increased over the past 5 years with MFIs playing a leading role here for their consumers so far.

However, the options for SME distributors and end consumers outside the financial inclusion net remain largely limited. Lastly some relief on applicable taxes and duties will also immensely help stakeholders incubating and growing this industry in different capacities.

Pl elaborate on the range of off-grid solar solutions offered by your Sun King brand in India?

For entry level consumers looking for a basic portable light, we offer a Pico (INR 499) which creates light roughly equivalent to 3 kerosene lamps. For those who need cell phone charging and a portable light, we have the Pro series (INR 1899-2399) that offers a significantly higher lighting experience (120-160 Lumens), which is good for small businesses and late night reading/children’s education, along with a cell phone charger.

We also have the Sun King Home series which includes 3 overhead lamps and individual switches that can be mounted on the walls as well as cell phone charging capabilities. They can easily power 1-3 room rural household and provides a reliable source of electricity.

We are also launching the Sun King Home TV which is a Solar TV with a large capacity battery that can power a few overhead lamps, tube lights and fan, providing a complete consumer experience. All of these products come with ready-to-use packaging and easy do-it-yourself installation guides.

How do your products compare with rooftop solar in terms of their cost effectiveness, energy efficiency, ROI and reliability?

With our products, consumers typically have a payback period spread over 6-9 months as compared to their alternative energy expenses primarily on lighting and cell phone charging. Further the gains in productivity for small businesses, reduction in health care costs as a result of clean energy and boost for children health and education are important social advantages over and above the cost-value proposition.

All our products come with 2-year warranty which gives our consumers enough confidence in the value these products will bring long after the initial investment they made is recovered.

Our products are available off the shelf, easy to install by the consumer themselves and simple to operate making it a lot more scalable as compared to rooftop solar.

Greenlight Planet has been highlighting the PAYG model via its EasyBuy pilots. What are its key attributes & benefits in the Indian context?

One of the biggest barriers to entry faced in adaptation of solar energy by our consumers is the substantial upfront cost involved. Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG or EasyBuy) leverages digital technology to enable solar devices (lamps, home systems) to be controlled, partially or fully, remotely by the distributor until such time the payments are not realized.

The way it works is that, the customer makes a pre-agreed upfront payment to purchase a Sun King EasyBuy solar product. The balance can be paid in easy installments or subscription over time at a pre-agreed daily rate.

If the payments are not made, the product will automatically switch off till the next payment is made. Then the consumer receives a key code (like an OTP) on their registered cell phones, which is to be entered in the solar product for it to function normally.

Once the entire payment is made, the product unlocks itself and works without the need for any further key codes. The entire collection process is mostly managed through digital payment technology.

This technology allows consumers to make their first purchase on credit and also provides a reasonable mechanism to enforce collection through remotely connected devices amongst a population that are currently outside the net of financial inclusion.

Limited solar financing options continue to remain a major challenge to the growth of solar energy in India. How do you assess this situation?

This is one of the biggest concerns for the industry as a whole. Government initiatives like Digital India and the focus on clean energy are steps in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done to ensure the benefits reach the darkest and remotest corners of Indian villages. There are two major aspects of this, which are jointly responsible for the successful outcome of these initiatives.

One is creating an efficient regulatory and financing infrastructure conducive to growth for new age solar companies and digital payments providers that is conducive to growth. This is where we believe the government can do more.

The second is driving a change in consumer education, behavior and culture at the grass root level towards being financially responsible with credit as well as using digital means for making purchases and payments.

Lastly, how do you see India evolving as a major player & role model for RE globally, over the next 5 years?

The intent and measures that we have seen from the Government in the past 3 years makes us extremely bullish about the growth of clean energy businesses in India. With costs of raw materials coming down, simplification of duty structures and a boost towards digitization of payment mechanism, we feel this industry will see exponential growth in the years to come, similar to the revolution we witnessed in Telecom industry in the last decade.