Chip Ransler is the co-founder of Husk Power Systems (HPS), a for-profit company that cost-effectively converts rice husks into electricity. HPS utilizes a proprietary technology to run 35-100 kilowatt mini power plants, delivering pay-for-use electricity to un-electrified villages in India's "Rice Belt." HPS' five pilot projects have become operationally profitable within six months, delivering sustainable, environmentally-friendly, low-cost energy that is dramatically improving the lives of rural Indians.
Chip is also a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow. We sat down this week at the conference for an interview. For more context on Husk Power Systems, check out their profiles in Virginia Business (Chip and his business partner, Manoj Sinha, are MBA candidates at the University of Virginia) and Rediff.com.
Rob Katz, NextBillion.net: Tell me briefly – what is Husk Power Systems?
Chip Ransler, Husk Power Systems: Husk Power Systems is a rural electrification company. We go where the inputs are cheap and where electricity is most needed and valued. In practice, that means rural villages – places where 3 or 4 thousand people live. Our systems are truly community based – we don’t have to truck in wires from all over the place. It’s a relatively small, off-grid system. There are 350 million people in India without power living in small villages; and those communities harvest 92 million tons of rice harvested every year – we’re meeting the need and using the best, local materials. Also, this is not a dream – we’re in 5 villages, power 12,000 people’s homes. Our goal is to build 100 as quickly as we can – then scale our model throughout the developing world.
NextBillion.net: Tell me about rice husk – what is it, how much is there, where do you find them? What do farmers do with them now?
Chip Ransler: Rice husk is the outside of a rice kernel. When you harvest rice, husk represents about 30 percent of the gross weight. As a result, husks are removed and discarded before transport. In a typical village, about 1500 tons of rice are harvested every season, yielding 500 tons of husk and 1000 tons of edible product. The farmers either burn the husk or allow it to rot in the fields.
Rice husk is cellulosic, which means it can be heated up and released for energy – the gas released is similar to methane. It also contains silica, which is released as a waste product when burned.
So, why is this interesting? If you took a map of the world’s energy poor areas and compare it to a map of rice producing areas, these two maps would look nearly identical. So we use husk to make electricity. The gas we make out of the husk is filtered, then run through a diesel-like engine to generate power.
Like I said, farmers throw away or burn rice husk – releasing methane into the atmosphere. This is an opportunity too. We’re working with the Indian government on getting our Clean Development Mechanism certification to sell carbon credits associated with our plants. And the silica – which is the other waste product – is sold to concrete manufacturers. So we take agricultural waste and turn it into electricity, minerals and carbon credits.
NextBillion.net: How do the plants work?
Chip Ransler: We’re using an older technology – gasification – which has been around since World War II. (Editor's note: check out this YouTube video of a rice husk gasifier.) We retrofit machines to work with multiple types of raw material – not just rice husk, but corn husk and wheat husk, too. We work with two Indian manufacturers to build gasifiers with the right specifications.
NextBillion.net: Talk about village power systems – why isn’t there a better way already?
Chip Ransler: In India and throughout the developing world, there are mega-power plants – huge plants that serve big cities with megawatts of power. There are also micro-power plants – like a home solar system, which might generate 20 to 60 watts. But there are not enough meso-power plants, serving small villages. Husk Power Systems plants are 35 to 100 kilowatts systems, serving 600-700 households with a full complement of power (for lighting, water pumps, small businesses, etc.)
NextBillion.net: How do you deal with micro grids? Do you build your own?
Chip Ransler: It’s easy to build grids. You need tri-phase, insulated aluminum wire for transmission. You string this over bamboo poles, which start at the plant. The grids aren’t fancy – but they work, and they’re built by and serve local people, so they are well-maintained.
NextBillion.net: How much do your customers pay for power?
Chip Ransler: Our clients pre-pay on a per KW basis. Households and businesses are charged rates competitive with or below government rates, across the board. Our installed cost per KWh is 900 to 1000 dollars right now. Compare that to coal, which is at least twice as expensive. Solar is 10 times as much; wind is 7-fold more. Our power is on par with developed world prices, which, for electricity, is pretty good.
NextBillion.net: What do your customers use electricity for? What did they do before Husk Power Systems came to town?
Chip Ransler: The first thing our customers do is charge cell phones. 90 percent of rural villagers in Bihar have cell phones, which they charge from motorcycle batteries for 25 to 50 cents each – a total ripoff. After cell phones, clients get lighting, radios, fans, crop irrigation (subbing for their diesel gen sets) and finally, business infrastructure. Our marketing is easy. We light up a village – then the surrounding villages see it and they come asking, how can we get this too? It sells itself.
NextBillion.net: How do you work locally with people in India?
Chip Ransler: My business partners, Manoj, Ratnesh and Gyanesh, all come from villages and small towns in Bihar. Our process is all local – we have hired only 1 person (besides me) who is non-local. First, we seek out the elders, the panchayat, and sit with them and talk. If they buy into our value proposition, we train operators and materials handlers; we set up an electricity council in each village, which is responsible for administering the payments.. We are all about simplicity and speed – we’re learning faster and now, our central staff has less and less involvement for each installation.
NextBillion.net: What’s the response to your systems from villagers on the ground?
Chip Ransler: The best quote was from a village teacher in Tamkuha. He told us, "We earned our independence from England 60 years ago, but today – when you came into our village – we got independence from poverty."
NextBillion.net: Where do you see this going in 5 years? 10 years?
Chip Ransler: We think we can power 2500 villages – 750,000 people.
NextBillion.net: Tell me about your financing.
Chip Ransler: Just this week, we secured a grant from the Shell Foundation, which may help us get a loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. This is a good American and Indian story – American money, Indian engineering, Indian talent and shared vision.
This is fantastic-- it is uplifting for social and environmental reasons. I hope the word spreads about this and other people catch on, seeing as rice is the staple food of the vast majority of the world there are a lot of husks to be used!
I would like to hear more about the environmental aspect of this technology. It seems wonderful from a development point of view and seems to have a net environmental benefit over the current methods of disposal, but it would be good to hear more detail about actual emissions and any other environmental effects of implementing this. What would be the implications of this becoming widely used? Are there ways of improving on the technology?