Rockefeller's Plan to Light up Rural India with Clean Energy

During the last century, the Rockefeller Foundation ranked as one of the world's most important foundations not just because of its deep pockets, but because of savvy decisions about where to focus its giving. And perhaps the foundation's great achievement was its role in orchestrating the Green Revolution, which greatly increased crop yields for farmers in poor countries.

So what might be an equivalent home run in the 21st century? Just maybe it would be bringing cheap energy to the world's poorest and most remote places. 

In rural India, more than 400 million people don’t have access to electricity. At the same time, an expanding web of telecom towers is burning through 2 billion liters of diesel every year. The Rockefeller Foundation is funding an ambitious initiative that would use the two problems to solve each other. 

The SPEED initiative (Smart Power for Environmentally sound Economic Development) is a collaborative program attempting to build decentralized clean energy plants that would light up homes in rural India, using the existing demand of communication towers as a way to drive the development. New clean energy plants (wind, solar, biomass, etc.) would supply telecom companies and reduce their diesel use, while establishing power infrastructure for India's 42,000 un-electrified villages. SPEED is one of Rockefeller’s major initiatives, granting $9 million to various grantees since 2011 as part of the foundation's funding for the environment, global development, and health.

In its annual giving, the august Rockefeller Foundation now ranks well behind over three dozen other foundations, many of which you've probably never heard of. But it's still a giant operation, with assets of about $3.7 billion as of 2012 and annual giving of $135 million. It has four main focus areas—Revalue Ecosystems, Secure Livelihoods, Transform Cities and Advance Health. The ecosystems and cities programs primarily fund what could be considered environmental and climate change work, although the foundation’s 15 initiatives tend to intertwine throughout the four focuses. SPEED is a good demonstration of the foundation's integrated and highly targeted approach to giving. 

The multi-partner initiative funds a combination of policy work, development of actual prototypes, work with existing industries in India, and channeling commercial investors toward the projects. The program is currently operating 50 pilot programs in four states in India, and could potentially expand to two more states.

One major grantee is TARA, The Society for Technology & Action for Rural Advancement, which uses technology primarily to benefit developing areas of India. Rockefeller granted TARA $3.5 million to develop and test decentralized energy projects. DESI Power has also received about $1.3 million for similar work to develop rural power plants. The most recent grantee McKinsey & Company received $700,000 to do an analysis of the mobile phone and tower industry in India.