High Light The night GE electrified an ancient Himalayan village

“We’re in the process of developing new products and services that  will allow people in Africa, India or Southeast Asia to gain access to  electricity. This technology will have a lasting effect. It will change  lives.”

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The night the 700-year-old  mountain oasis of Rakuru was to see its first electric light, the whole  village gathered in the largest room and waited for someone to flip the  switch. But nothing happened.

“We scrambled in the dark to look  for the problem,” said Shantnu Mathuria, a GE Power employee who had trekked  to the isolated spot in Northern India to bring electricity to the people of  Rakuru. They found one loose contact and then tried it again. This time the  room lit up with bright light. “The people were hugging each other and  dancing,” said Shivani Saklani, a GE Power project management specialist who  also made the journey. “The experience was so powerful it made me cry.”

Perched like a snow pigeon’s nest  13,000 feet high on the granite flanks of the Karakoram Range, Rakuru  consists of eight stone homes surrounded by fields of wild flowers, barley  and green peas sustaining approximately 70 villagers. But since this summer,  it’s also a beacon of light shining across the stark, treeless landscape.

Saklani and Mathuria were part of  an eight-member expedition dispatched by GE Power and Global Himalayan  Expedition (GHE) in late summer to electrify Rakuru. “People want to be  working on significant things that leave a lasting impact,” said Ricky Buch,  a GE Power senior marketing leader who helped organise the trip and recruit  Saklani and her colleagues. “We tapped into that desire.”

Electricity is a basic human right, says GE’s Ricky Buch. He helped organize the trip that brought power to people living in the remote Indian village of Rakuru. Image credit: GE Power

Electricity is a basic human right, says GE’s Ricky Buch. He  helped organize the trip that brought power to people living in the remote  Indian village of Rakuru. play

Electricity is a basic human right, says GE’s Ricky Buch. He  helped organize the trip that brought power to people living in the remote  Indian village of Rakuru.

(GE)

The journey to electrify Rakuru  started seven months earlier in a different mountain oasis half a world away.  GE Power President and CEO Steve Bolze and other GE leaders were at the World  Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when he sat down with  GHE’s Jaideep Bansal to discuss their shared belief that electricity is a  basic human right and their desire to collaborate to bring power to people  without access and in the most remote locations in the world. As a result, GE  Power and GHE plan to electrify a total of 10 villages throughout the  Himalayas.Starting just a few weeks before  the late-July trek, GE Power put out a call to local employees and asked them  to apply for the first trip to Rakuru. Employees from all over India applied  for the eight available spots. “We were looking for passion and an excitement  to contribute,” said Buch.

The team gathered in the capital  and boarded a plane bound for the medieval mountain city of Leh. Surrounded  by snow-capped mountains, they spent two days in the city hydrating, sleeping  and getting used to the altitude, and also to each other. “We were from all  over India,” Saklani said. “Most of us met for the first time.” She remembers  sitting around a bonfire and watching shooting stars streaking over the black  sky above. “It was pitch dark at night, and the Milky Way stretched  overhead,” she said. “It was an amazing sight.”

Two days later the team loaded a  white minibus with their equipment and gear and piled inside. They climbed  along a narrow winding road to the Khardung La pass — at 17,582 feet one of  the world’s highest highway passes — and then dropped 6,000 blood-curdling  feet along tight turns to the village of Skuru in the Nubra Valley, their  basecamp. Rakuru was nestled in the clouds some 3,000 feet above them and 8  miles away.

The next morning the team woke up  in the dark and met with their mountain guides. They arrived with a pair of  donkeys and a dzo — a cross between yak and cattle — that would carry some  200 pounds of baggage as well as all of the equipment needed to electrify the  village.

When they set out at 5:30 a.m.,  the temperature was hovering just above freezing, but the sky was clear and  besotted with stars. After the first gentle incline, the narrow, rocky path  started alternating between steep climbs and drop-offs. “You had to pay  attention to your every step,” Mathuria said. “In some places the path was  just one and a half feet wide. One false step and you end up in a deep  valley.” Saklani said the guides taught her to meditate as she was walking  and focus on the moment, not the far-off destination. “There was a cool  breeze blowing in our faces. I spent a lot of time inside my head, reflecting  on life and where I came from.”

The exhausted trekkers reached  Rakuru more than 10 hours later. The villagers were waiting for them outside  with kataks — ceremonial silk prayer scarves — yak butter and cups of chang,  the local milky beer-like beverage made from fermented barley. But since it  was getting dark and it was freezing, they went inside and tucked in for the  night.

The next morning the team got up  early and used a translator to explain to the villagers — many of whom only  spoke the local Ladakhi language — what exactly they would be doing. They  started by installing two grids in the village and a third one stretching to  a home occupied by an 81-year-old woman, one of the oldest Rakuru residents.  They divided themselves into groups. One team was stretching wires, another  was installing solar panels and batteries, and yet another was hammering  sockets into wooden beams supporting the roof. The houses had eight to 10  rooms, and they had to make sure there would be enough light in each.

After they overcame the wiring  mishap, the party trekked to the house of the 81-year-old woman, who had  never experienced electricity in her life, and turned the lights on for her.  “This lady stole the show,” Saklani said. “She snuffed out her candle and  gave us her blessings. We were tired, but our work was finished. We illuminated  the whole village.”

But there are still more than 1 billion people without access to electricity. “We started this project as a  calling, but we realized there is a global commercial opportunity for this technology,”  Buch said. “We’re in the process of developing new products and services that  will allow people in Africa, India or Southeast Asia to gain access to  electricity. This technology will have a lasting effect. It will change  lives.”

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