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December 09, 2011

Human Stories of an Energy Revolution

Guest post by Grace Boyle, Greenpeace India.

Solar

Roughly one in six people in the world live in India. 

Approximately 40% of those people have no access to electricity – and the amount with access to a reliable, quality supply is even smaller. 

The centralised energy system currently favoured by policy makers is not delivering electricity fairly, especially to those who live in rural areas.

As the climate talks in Durban continue, we’ve taken a close look at eleven cases across India in which pioneering individuals are taking a fresh approach, and creating reliable energy services through decentralised renewable energy systems.

"Taking Charge" is published by Greenpeace, with photographs by leading Indian photojournalists. The full report is available to download here.

The social side of decentralised renewable energy:

Technology is fairly straightforward – it’s the social aspects that are the most complex. Access to energy is intricately connected to economic and social advantage.  So what happens when entrepreneurs, innovators and ordinary communities take their energy futures into their own hands? 

Who manages it, pays for it, and benefits from it?

A few of the pioneers I met:
  • Ram and Mario Esteves are brothers.  They founded a community organisation encompassing 902 villages, which has built 5,500 biogas units in the homes of poor women in Karnataka.  The units were financed by a €1.1m forward sale of carbon credits under the CDM and their usage is being monitored daily.  They are now building 18,000 more. Inside the houses, women cook in a clean environment and no longer have to struggle back from the forest with firewood, a day-long journey during which they were vulnerable to sexual assault. “Ultimately, it’s the social issues that are important,” says Ram.  “If there’s a match between these and climate change issues, so be it.  If there’s no match, so be that also.”
  • Srinivasan is an entrepreneur who has set up his solar thermal hot water heaters on a hospital roof in Delhi.  His company is one of India’s first ESCOs (energy services company), paid by the hospital to heat their water to an agreed temperature every day.  The hospital saves money on their previous gas heating method, and shrugs off the maintenance and risks of owning technology. Srinivasan turns a profit, and is now setting up a solar PV plant on the roof of a school.

  • Shanmugam is the ex-president of Odanthurai Panchayat, a group of eleven densely-populated villages in Tamil Nadu. Educated only up to the age of fifteen, he would take the bus to renewable energy trade fairs to tour the tables and quiz RE companies on what they could do for his Panchayat.  He’s installed 575 solar streetlights, a biomass gasifier for pumping filtered water, and a nightsoil biogas system that residents are loathe to admit using because of social stigma. In 2006 he took a bank loan and purchased a 350 kW grid-connected wind turbine in a Suzlon windfarm – the first local public body in the country to do so.  In three years, the loan will be repaid and the electricity produced by the turbine will not only wipe the Panchayat’s electricity bills to zero, but bring them an income of 800,000 rupees a year.

Five fundamentals:

Despite the diversity of geography, technology and operator model covered by these case studies, a few common truths emerged in the process of learning and writing about them.

  • The poor are willing and able to pay for e­lectricity.  Noble ambitions to deliver free electricity to the poor through a centralised electricity grid often end up as broken infrastructure and spasmodic supply in reality. Instead, people use diesel, burn butter lamps or hitch up car batteries to televisions – all expensive options that mean the poor end up paying more than the rich for electricity. In all our case studies, people paid a cheaper rate for electricity from renewable energy.  In some, the community had decided which of its members to make exceptions for – three widows in a Himalayan village, for example, received free electricity.
  • Decentralised renewable energy can be applied to a diversity of situations. The beauty of small-scale, decentralised energy systems is that they can be tailored to deliver the exact energy services required locally.  And if there’s a problem, they can be responsive.  The magnificent Husk Power Systems have electrified over 100,000 households through biomass gasification of rice husk. When they started, local millers raised the price of rice husk, noticing it was now valued. So Husk Power opened their own mill, dehusking villagers’ rice for free.  Once a reasonable price had been settled on with the local millers, they shut down their mill and directed the trade back to the local businesses.
  • A leader helps. Every single one of our case studies had a leader. The route to leadership didn’t seem to be important – the leaders we found included a priest, a pair of engineer friends with a political point to prove, and an elected member of local government – but their ability to mobilise communities was.
  • Proper management and maintenance is crucial. Maintenance services must be available to even the most remote of areas – a pivotal point recognised by SELCO and Prakruti Hydro Labs. However, technology should also be appropriate to its users. We visited one extremely poor community where the people lived in terrible conditions and were given a solar lamp for a few hours each day. We decided not to feature it. Frankly, solar lamps were not priority for those people - they needed medicines, sanitation and better food.  However, the best projects we saw acknowledged energy access as part of a holistic development initiative, linked with income, equality, and health.

Download the full report from the Greenpeace India website.

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