Lighting Up the Roof of the World

For more than 1,000 years, remote villages across the Himalayan mountains in India have struggled without any electricity. Beyond the noxious flicker of kerosene lamps, the setting of the sun means total darkness. No nighttime studying. No computers. No power for income-generating activity.

Until now.

By harnessing solar technologies and the can-do spirit of visiting trekkers, the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) has brought first-ever light and life to dozens of small villages scattered across the world’s highest mountain range.

The social enterprise is the brainchild of Paras Loomba, who quit his corporate engineering job in 2012 after completing an International Antarctica Expedition and seeing first hand how climate change was affecting the world. Upon returning to India, Loomba decided to create a similar expedition experience in the Himalayans combining social impact and awe-inspiring hiking at the same time.

In 2013, Loomba’s first expedition team comprised of changemakers from 10 countries and GHE team members electrified its first village, Sumda Chenmo, which is a three-day trek from the nearest road. Forty additional villages, with 18,000 people, have been electrified since then, all with DC solar microgrids.

Seeing an 11th century village get electricity for the first time is a breath-taking experience, says Jaideep Bansal, GHE’s Energy Access Leader.

“People start dancing, women start crying, lots of emotion,” said Bansal, 29, who was visiting New York City last week as part of the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week. “A lot of people start worshiping and praying when they look at the lights. It’s really amazing.”

There are long-lasting benefits, too. Children have far better educational opportunities thanks to nighttime light and access to computers. Women have more time for weaving specialized cashmere wool called pashmina. And, lastly, families can now host visiting hikers in their homes – charging them 1,000 rupees a night (equivalent to $20-25).

While GHE pays upfront installation costs – the social enterprise gets most of its funding from corporate donors – the villagers are responsible for maintaining and upgrading the solar grids. Villagers pay a monthly user fee – about $1.50 a month - that goes into a shared bank account which is used for covering costs.

GHE has also trained 10 engineers – two of them women – to run a service center for the 40 villages and to bring solar-fed electricity to more villages. It’s also setting up digital education hubs where kids can participate in online classrooms.

Ultimately, Bansal says, it’s about empowering the villages. “We can give them light, but how do they use it to uplift themselves out of poverty,” he said.

GHE has 30 more villages to electrify in India, but it’s also setting its sights far beyond the Himalayas. It is now looking to take its “energy and tourism” model to other mountainous countries, beginning with Peru and Cameroon. It’s long term goal: to reach 1 million people.