Impact Story: Oorja Development Solutions
“It’s a no-brainer for farmers to move to solar,” says Clementine Chambron, Oorja’s CTO. In summer of 2020, Oorja was awarded a $25,000 Keeling Curve Prize in the Energy category.
How do you help rural agricultural communities in India transition to clean energy? With Oonnati! That's what Oorja Development Solutions - a 2020 Keeling Curve Prize Laureate in the Energy category - calls its community solar irrigation service model.
Oorja uses its Oonnati model to bring clean energy to small, last-mile farmers by building community solar irrigation pumps for rural communities in the Uttar Pradesh and Assam provinces of India. These areas don't have access to India's power grid for their agricultural operations. Almost 90% of the farmers in the region operate small, 1-acre or less farms. Without a centralized power source, these farmers must rely on diesel pumps for irrigation. India has nearly 10 million of these pumps, accounting for 5% of the country's GHG footprint.
Through this innovative business model, Oorja provides solar powered irrigation for several farmers in a community. The farmers do not purchase the solar power, but rather the service that the energy provides. In this case, they purchase the pumped irrigation water through a pay-per-use structure. Oorja is selling litres of pumped water, not kwhs. This model not only helps Oorja address the emissions impact of the diesel pumps across India's rural landscape, it solves other headaches for the farmers. “Diesel pumps are unreliable, require a lot of maintenance, cannot operate year-round, and are costly. Oorja's solar collective enables them to transition from diesel to clean energy with no upfront or maintenance costs,” notes CTO Clementine Chambron.
The irrigation service from these solar installations is available year-round, allowing farmers to increase production and their income by up to 50%. And, solar pump irrigation services 20-30% cheaper than diesel. Chambron understands that "it's no brainer for farmers to move to solar".
Oorja's origin can be traced back to 2015 at an environmental entrepreneur workshop, where Chambron met Amit Saraogi, Oorja's CEO and Co-Founder. With Saraogi's extensive experience in business finance and international development, as well as his knowledge of rural India he gained through research with UNICEF, coupled with Chambron's clean energy systems engineering expertise, Oorja was launched in 2017. Oorja started from a climate perspective, working with rural community to meet their needs by providing mini solar grids for residential markets. As India expanded its grid to include these services, Oorja was getting force out of the market. But those same communities said they needed help with energy for irrigation pumps. Oorja pivoted to address this unmet need, launching Oonnati with its first installation in 2018. Today there are 10 community solar installations, serving over 100 farm operations, benefitting over 1,600 people. Oorja hopes add 40 installations in the next year, and 150 in the next 5 years.
“Without a means to refrigerate, farmers can lose up to 30% of their crop between harvest and delivery to urban markets. Adding a cold storage service (called “Oonnayan”) preserves the produce until it is taken to market. ”
Oorja is not just looking to grow in size, but in its services as well. They are working on adding other energy services to be met by its solar installations. An entirely unmet need of these rural agricultural communities is cold storage. Without a means to refrigerate, farmers can lose up to 30% of their crop between harvest and delivery to urban markets. Adding a cold storage service (called "Oonnayan") preserves the produce until it is taken to market. This not only reduces food waste, it enables growers to extend the shelf life for the produce so that the entire harvest does not hit the market at once, keeping the market from getting flooded and driving down the price of produce. Oonnayan also allows farmers to pursue higher value produce. As with the Oonnati, the farmers pay for the service not the energy - "pay as you chill" if you will. Oorja also plans to roll out "Oojjwal", an agro-processing energy service, applying the same model to post harvest processing of crops. Oorja's customers will pay for net weight of process crops, not energy consumed. This service can be provided when irrigation services are not needed.
How has winning the KCP helped Oorja? Receiving the Prize in the summer of 2020 while COVID was exploding across India was a big morale boost, acknowledges Chambron. From an operational perspective, the funds provide valuable assistance towards adding new team members, thus allowing Oorja to increase its capacity and launch the cold storage Oonnayan service.
The KCP congratulates Oorja for earning the Prize in 2020's KCP energy category. Their model is a great example of how migrating to clean energy not only good for the planet and good for business, but for the individuals and communities it engages.