Colorado energy firm that uses rice husks to power villages in Africa, Asia attracts $20 million from Shell’s venture arm

Husk Power Systems - Husk Power Systems, based in Fort Collins, developed mini grids that provide about 250 to 300 users power in a remote area. The grids get power from solar, battery and gasification of corn husks. The company currently operates 75 grids in India and Tanzania and offers electricity to users on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Energy company Husk Power Systems, which is building renewable energy systems to power remote villages in Asia and Africa, made two big announcements Wednesday: It picked up $20 million from investors, and it’s moving its headquarters to Fort Collins.

CEO Manoj Sinha, who cofounded Husk in India in 2008, said he looked at other U.S. cities but Fort Collins rose to the top because of industry collaboration and access to talent. The company moved into Colorado State University Powerhouse Energy Campus, a facility that once housed the Fort Collins Municipal Power Plant and includes the CSU Energy Institute. About 13 companies call the facility home. Nearby is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“All these factors need to come together to make a decentralized form of power generation, distribution and mobile enabled payment system possible with intense focus on promoting productive uses of power,” Sinha said.

Husk is using a mix of solar energy, batteries and a biomass gasifier that uses rice husks as fuel. Each decentralized microenergy grid can power 250 to 300 users at a time. Users plug in when they need some juice — like a pay-as-you-go utility. Costs would change throughout the day — cheaper during daylight when solar is available, but more costly at night when rice husk power kicks in. On its site, Husk says that its energy costs to customers are 30 percent less than other alternatives.

Sinha said that each microgrid costs about $100,000 for everything, including distribution and smart metering. The power plant becomes operationally profitable within six months, while the break even on capital costs takes six to seven years — and that’s with no government subsidies.

The new funding comes from a trio of European investment firms, including Shell Technology Ventures, the venture arm of oil and gas company Shell; plus Swedfund International and ENGIE Rassembleurs d’Energies.

Sinha plans to use the money to ramp up the local office — including hiring a chief financial officer, a chief technology officer and electrical and computer engineers. He hopes to ramp up to 10 employees in Fort Collins this year. Its move into the CSU campus gives it access to a mini-grid lab built by the Energy Institute and a community of other energy companies.

“We are excited to work with Husk Power Systems, a company that embodies our mission to create energy innovations that have global impact,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute. “They have found a way to provide access to electric power to the poorest segments of society, even in the most remote locations in the developing world.”

The company also has about 125 full-time employees in India. The goal is also to expand the number of mini-grids — currently around 75 serving 120,000 people in India and Tanzania — to 300.

“We always say that we are not just providing electricity but a tool that our customers can use to generate extra cash by opening an ice cream-making machine shop, an agro-processing machine shop, etc.,” Sinha said.

Right now, expansion plans target poor African and Asian communities with no electricity, but the model could work in America, where security issues are more of an issue than off-the-grid communities.

“Moreover, mini-grid provides a very secure way of accessing energy and gives 100 percent control to the community as how to go about doing that,” Sinha said. “Main grid is vulnerable to potential hacking and blackouts/brownouts; mini-grids are not.”