10 Aug 2017
Into the Light
Alleviating ‘energy poverty’ and envisioning the future of renewable powerby April WhiteTopics:
Photo by Eric Don-Arthur/GPA
More than 1.2 billion people worldwide live without access to electricity. Another 2 billion have limited electricity, just a few hours of often unreliable power a day. “It’s really hard for most of us to imagine a life without electricity,” explains Nicole Poindexter (MBA 1997), cofounder and CEO of Energicity. “Modern life as we know it is impossible.”
Poindexter has seen the struggles firsthand in rural Ghana, where her startup is working to bring solar power to communities where highly flammable kerosene and expensive flashlight batteries are currently the primary source of light. In these small villages, Poindexter has seen both simple inconveniences and economic hardship that result from the lack of power. Although cocoa farming, which is prevalent in the region where Energicity launched, doesn’t require electricity, the farmers’ days are cut short as they hurry home to make dinner and do other household chores before darkness falls.
Lack of electricity is also a health concern. Poindexter recalls hearing of a baby in need of urgent care in the middle of the night. The clinic had no electricity. As the doctor went to insert an IV, the flashlight’s batteries died. Eventually someone found a candle, and the IV was inserted by the light of a flame.
“It’s simple: health care improves dramatically with electricity,” she says.
Poindexter tells such stories with astonishment because she wasn’t aware of the extent of the problem until just a couple of years ago. Her background is in energy efficiency. She was an early employee of OPower, a software company that provides utilities, and their customers, better information about energy usage. After the company’s IPO, in 2014, Poindexter took a step back to consider what she wanted to do next. She quickly realized that her real interest was in creating “electrical grids that leveraged 100 percent renewable energy.”
In the United States, with its fixed infrastructure, such a goal seemed impossible. But in communities without electricity, Poindexter saw the chance to create something new. As she researched that idea, she came to understand the human and economic costs of “energy poverty,” and realized that her idea could do more than improve the environment. It could improve lives, at a cost that is less than the price of the current kerosene and battery alternatives.
Still, it was difficult to take that step from idea to reality. “I got on a plane and showed up and said, ‘Hi, I would like to provide electricity,’” she recalls. “I expected them to say, ‘Okay, crazy lady, go away.’” Instead, Poindexter got an enthusiastic response on that first trip to Ghana, in March 2015. Energicity was born.
The company began its work in the region around Kumasi, Ghana, where Poindexter saw need, interest, and opportunity, but the company now has bigger plans in that country and throughout the continent. “This is a 600 million–person market. We could be a billion-dollar company if we were to just reach about two million people.”
In October 2015, eight months after Poindexter’s first trip to Ghana, Energicity completed its first solar farm in a village near Kumasi. Two weeks after the power was turned on, Poindexter returned to visit the community. “There was a five-foot-high speaker that was blasting music and they were having a huge dance party, which they were never able to do before,” she says. “Electricity changes everything.”
Class of MBA 1997, Section G